Over a week at the Royal Festival Hall Daniel Barenboim is performing twelve of Schubert’s piano sonatas, spread across four concerts. In the second of these he played his Piano Sonata No. 9 in B, D.575 (1817), the Piano Sonata No. 18 in G, D.894 (1826) and the Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D.958 (1828), and the programming of pieces from different points in the composer’s life certainly produced dividends. The first anticipates the then 20-year old’s achievements of the 1820s, the second reveals his confidence at the height of his powers to produce something so perfect in form and yet so serene in nature, while the third is full of pain and anguish, albeit manifested in a variety of ways, as if Schubert knows that his days are numbered.
Just as worthy of note as Barenboim’s performances was the instrument upon which they were played. All four of these concerts are being performed on a new piano that bears Barenboim’s name, and which was unveiled just the day before the first one. It was deliberately designed to combine the best features of a modern piano with those of a nineteenth century instrument. Overall, it would appear to be successful in fulfilling its aims, although almost inevitably the pianist’s handling of it seems to play a large part in the sound that is produced.
Barenboim’s playing proved masterly and sublime, with the boldness he demonstrated possessing a certain delicacy and the sensitivity he showed revealing marvellous clarity. In this way, his performances could be described as beautifully balanced, but were also notable for their insight, nuances, details and contrasts. The Piano Sonata No. 9 was essentially divided into two pairs of movements, a pause only being inserted after the second, with keen attention being given to the dotted rhythms and phrase lengths. The unorthodox modulations felt highly intriguing and yet, in Barenboim’s hands, were thoroughly understandable.
In the Piano Sonata No. 18 Barenboim embraced the leisurely progression of the opening to delineate and caress each of the ideas contained within it. At the same time, he brought out just the right degree of exuberance in the rondo-style movements. Pianos in Schubert’s time demonstrated far greater variation in sound world between the bass, middle and treble ranges. This is not necessarily something that should be striven for in a modern instrument because continuity of sound across the keyboard is surely a good thing. At the same time, however, it has been suggested that Schubert’s sonatas were written to maximise the variation that existed. Barenboim the instrument would appear to establish a strong working compromise between these two conflicting needs, while Barenboim the player instinctively knew how to achieve the right balance between unity and contrast through the control of his left and right hands. Above all, he ensured that this sonata could be analysed, understood and simply enjoyed all at once.
In Barenboim’s hands the Piano Sonata No. 19 seemed to run the entire gamut of human emotions with its gripping opening, its genuinely slow and intangible Adagio, and the third movement’s occasional inclusion of a bar of silence. It was perhaps the closing Allegro, however, that left the most lasting impression as Barenboim brought out its restless, obsessive and demonic elements to the full while dipping into moments of extreme and breath-taking quiet.
Daniel Barenboim’s final two concerts, each featuring three Schubert piano sonatas, will take place at the Royal Festival Hall on 31 May (3pm) and 2 June (7.30pm). For further details visit the Southbank Centre website.