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Bland and ponderous for the most part
on 21 August 2014
Unfortunately, Barenboim's Schubert set has not met my expectations. I really wanted to like it, but by and large Barenboim seems to miss a certain inwardness and simplicity of expression that are essential in Schubert.
The great G Major Sonata (D894) is a case in point. The first movement sounds disappointingly prosaic. Barenboim rarely achieves a true pianissimo and plays mostly at a comfortable mezzo-forte. By the exposition repeat, he just sounds as if he's on auto-pilot without making any effort to differentiate anything. The minor key climax sounds rushed, and in general there's a feeling of heaviness about the whole movement, which is strange in Barenboim's comparatively brisk tempo. The slow movement is bland, the Minuet doesn't really dance, and the finale features some really wayward playing. It sounds as if Barenboim is determined not to let the movement achieve any sort of momentum with his mannered rubato and random phrases hammered out for no discernible musical reason. On the whole, this Sonata ends up sounding like second-rate Beethoven.
The early works disappoint too. In this case, I wouldn't be surprised if Barenboim, with his busy schedule, didn't have the time to properly internalise the pieces. They seem to lack ideas of how the music should go besides random rubato here and there and, like in D894, chords and phrases pounded out for no apparent reason. The early A Minor (D537) and the B Major (D575) are especially susceptible to these mannerisms it seems. They just pass by uneventfully and blandly. If we listen to Michael Endres or Alfred Brendel in D575 we're in a different world entirely for example - they unlock the work's playfulness and innovation in a way that Barenboim doesn't.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Barenboim is better in the D Major Sonata (D850), which is the most extroverted and outgoing work in the set. The directness of expression that seems to elude him elsewhere is there right from the beginning, which patiently builds to climaxes and has a proper symphonic sweep. I'm still not overly enamoured by Barenboim's rubato, especially in the middle section of the slow movement and the minor-key episodes of the finale, but overall it's largely a convincing intepretation.
The great A Minor Sonata (D784) is also not bad, but at certain key points it sounds overly cautious. Barenboim does not generate the same kind of drama and inevitability as Richter (in his live recording on BBC Legends), Uchida or Brendel do in their different ways. The same applies to the A Major (D959): the overriding feeling is one of blandness, as if Barenboim does not have particularly strong ideas about how it should go. The heart-breaking theme of the Andantino is sung very well, but the shattering climax is not given its full due. Again Barenboim sounds overly cautious for some reason. I have to say overall that, if I were listening to these recordings blind, I'd have concluded that the pianist hasn't internalised them properly and that he or she needs to properly spend some time with them. Barenboim just applies the same 'one size fits all' style and the results are very generalised and uninteresting.
There is, however, one important exception: Schubert's last Sonata (D960), whose first movement especially is played really beautifully and with no hint of mannerism by Barenboim. I don't think it's a coincidence that, of all the Sonatas here, this is one that has been in his repertoire for decades now. Indeed he has recorded it previously for DG (in 1980 I believe) and this recording is an improvement in every respect. For starters, he now plays the exposition repeat of the first movement and the astonishing linking passage associated with it. Barenboim plays the main theme relatively 'straight' but with beautiful dynamic shadings and a firm but unobtrusive bass line underpinning it all (where was that in the earlier Sonatas?). He phrases melodies really lovingly, as is evident in the breathtaking development section, and the beautiful rolled chords in the coda. Perhaps he plays some sections a bit too lovingly, as when he lingers over certain phrases in the Andante, but this is a welcome change from the blandness of the other Sonatas. The only relative disappointment is the Scherzo, where Barenboim occasionally overdoes the rubato and it sounds a bit choppy as a result.
If this album contained only the D960 Sonata it would merit at least 4 stars for sure. However, it saddens me to say that most of the rest fails to capture Schubert's spirit and cannot be recommendable for a comprehensive overview of Schubert's Sonatas.