makes these pieces great also made them some of the most
recorded pieces in the piano repertoire. Why yet another
recording, when there are such great performances by Lupu,
Schnabel, Fleisher and others?”
words are not mine but those of the pianist in the notes
for his debut CD. It is a good question. He goes on to answer
it by suggesting that he is not out to compete with other
recorded performances but seeks to reveal facets of a work
that derive from his own love and study of it. Different
actors may reveal different faces of Hamlet’s character but
it is still Shakespeare’s work. So it is with Schubert’s
B Flat Sonata.
Barnatan may not want to compete with other recorded performances
but he has nevertheless put his own up for sale in a challenging
market and the question for punters is, “do I buy?”.
will say straightaway that if you like your Schubert played
thoughtfully with the pathos coming through from behind the
beauty and the dance rhythms, you need to hear these performances.
The Four Impromptus are treated to a combination of such
singing beauty, steady rhythmic control, delicacy and gravitas
that the pianist makes them sound more serious and musically
intellectual than the title “impromptu” might suggest. Having
said that, there are some people, Schumann among them, who
have thought that at their inception, Schubert intended them
to be a sonata. They are after all collectively as long as
the B Flat Sonata masterpiece that follows on the disc.
is clear from Barnatan’s notes that he takes the Sonata very
seriously indeed, quoting Schubert’s remark made at Beethoven’s
death, “who can do anything after Beethoven”. He cites this
work, written 18 months after the great man’s death, as a
positive answer to the question and in his playing sets out
to prove it. The work is about travel from darkness to light,
he says, and in this he takes a long term view, not just
of each movement but of the work as a whole. He does it in
the first movement by, for example, starting the long first
melody in subdued fashion and refusing to speed up significantly
as it decoratively develops. Then when the tune is repeated
loudly he does not overdo the decibels. I have heard many
a pianist hammer this passage out in such a way as to commit
a classic case of peaking too early even before the two minute
point has been reached. Barnatan steadily unfolds the narrative
in a way that eschews any pianistic showing off.
slow movement I have always thought one of the finest evocations
of stillness – maybe stasis is a better word – in
music. To get this effect it is not necessary to play the
music, which is marked andante, as if it were an adagio.
I have heard Sviatoslav Richter take the stasis idea to such
extremes that he makes the music sound as if it about to
grind to a stop, one of those eccentricities that mar what
is otherwise much admired Schubert playing. Barnatan does
take it on the slow side, slower than another great Schubert
player, Alfred Brendel; but like Brendel he both keeps the
music steadily under control and achieves moments of magical pianissimo.
the fast final two movements Barnatan dances delicately but
also ominously shades those darker sides in order to emphasise
the light. Nothing is exaggerated and as a result I think
the music gains strength. Another aspect of the playing is
a subtle approach to texture, as if the pianist is delicately
orchestrating the music. One way this manifests itself is
the way he gently brings out some inner parts in a way that
gives an illusion of illuminating the music from within.
will be those who may wish that Barnatan let rip more in
those passages that would allow. I can understand that but
if he did, the vision and integrity of his interpretations
would be unbalanced. I heard the 75 year old Brendel live
the other day playing another late Schubert sonata and I
overheard similar comment about his playing (see review).
Nevertheless, I would far rather hear Brendel playing Schubert
than most others, and I will now confidently say the same
about Barnatan. The pianist may be nearly half a century
younger than Brendel but these performances are of a distinction
and maturity that I am sure would gain the admiration of
the veteran master.