In the third of his four concerts at the Royal Festival Hall devoted to Schubert’s piano sonatas, Daniel Barenboim’s focus was on his Piano Sonata No. 7 in E flat, D.568 (1817/26), the Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor, D.784 (1823) and the Piano Sonata No. 17 in D, D.850 (1825). As with all of the recitals, the performance felt as ‘in-the-round’ as the infrastructure of the Royal Festival Hall would allow with audience members occupying not only the choir stalls but also chairs on the stage itself. With the lights dimmed so that the pianist constituted the sole point of illumination, the concert felt almost as intimate as it might have done in the far smaller Wigmore Hall.
Barenboim deserves credit for bringing the audience so close to witness the most intricate workings of his hands and mind, because doing so means that there is absolutely nowhere for a performer to hide. For this reason it is hardly a criticism to say that, although the musical output remained unaffected, his performance of the Piano Sonata No. 7 in E flat, D.568 did appear somewhat effortful. This may simply have been a consequence of the deceptively complex nature of the piece (it was originally written in D flat in 1817 and extensively reworked in 1826), but at close proximity it was noticeable that he wiped his brow mid-phrase far more often than usual. The end product, on the other hand, still felt highly accomplished as the contrasts between the opening idea-packed Allegro moderato, the slow and wistful Andante molto, the counterbalancing minuet and the expansive finale were brought out to the full.
The performance of the Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor, D.784 felt more masterly as Barenboim proved particularly adept at eliciting the meaning of the first movement’s ‘tolling bells’, and at projecting both the unease and radiance inherent in the second theme. All four concerts are being performed on the new Barenboim piano, which was only unveiled last Wednesday. I do not know how much time Daniel Barenboim had with it in advance, but it would seem as if he is warming to the instrument from concert to concert, with its treble range feeling a degree fuller even than on Friday. The piano certainly seemed to be shown at its best as the left and right hands moved in parallel through the central Andante, while in the closing Allegro vivace Barenboim’s tackling of the triplets proved impeccable as he once again achieved the right balance between conveying joy and sorrow in the movement’s second theme.
It was, however, the performance of the Piano Sonata No. 17 in D, D.850 that will stay longest in the memory. It is a joyous piece reflecting the optimistic mood of Schubert at the time of composition, and Barenboim brought explosions of sound to the ear while never compromising on his trademark subtlety and precision. Particularly noteworthy was his handling of the Scherzo in which he contrasted the duple-time march with the triple-time ländler to absolute perfection.
The final concert in the series in which Daniel Barenboim plays Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in A minor, D.845 (1825) and Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat, D.960 (1828) will take place at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 June at 7.30pm. For further details visit the Southbank Centre website.