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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu D899 No. 1 in C minor [12:15]
Impromptu D899 No. 2 in E flat [5:17]
Impromptu D899 No. 3 in G flat [12:14]
Impromptu D899 No. 4 in A flat [10:53]
Moment musical D780 No. 1 in C [7:55]
Moment musical D780 No. 2 in A flat [9:18]
Moment musical D780 No. 3 in F minor [2:13]
Moment musical D780 No. 4 in C sharp minor [7:44]
Moment musical D780 No. 5 in F minor [2:17]
Moment musical D780 No. 6 in A flat [14:59]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in G, D894 [54:44]
Tzimon Barto (piano)
rec. dates and venues not provided with digital copy
CAPRICCIO 5028 [60:05 + 79:44]

Experience Classicsonline

All one needs hear from Tzimon Barto’s new two-disc set of late Schubert piano works is his two-minute, thirteen-second performance of the Moment Musical No. 3 in F minor. It is a remarkable performance, for everything about it is wrong.
 
The problems begin with the unnatural, exaggerated pause between the first two chords. Barto then softens his left-hand’s harsh tone considerably, leaving room for the main tune to enter, but the theme itself is phrased artificially again, endings of every line tapering off into the ether (check 0:28). New phrases signal increases in speed, which last until midway through the phrase, when the pace slacks and the cycle repeats. The central section is largely acceptable, although again devoid of a consistent tempo, but then at 1:16 the main theme trips over itself on its return. Sometimes the little trills which end each line of the stanzas are phrased cleanly, precisely; sometimes they are run together in a clatter (0:08); sometimes they are played with artificial mystery and soft glow (1:16); sometimes (1:40) they kick off their shoes and dance. Oh, and the artificial pause after the first chord comes back, in the form of another delay before the last.
 
I’ve barely even mentioned the bass part. As Schubert wrote it, it is simplicity itself: one-two, one-two, one-two. But Barto never plays two consecutive one-twos the same way: sometimes the stress is on one, sometimes on two, sometimes they are equal. Sometimes there is a quick “cut” from one to two, and sometimes he takes all the time in the world. The louder and softer bits of the piece are sometimes correlated with Schubert’s actual dynamic markings.
 
We have all heard many pianists play this famous tune, and I suspect many of this website’s readers will have played it themselves. Tzimon Barto’s performance sounds like that of a wilful youngster adding his own “twist” to the music, to impress us with how creative he is, and possibly to provoke his piano teacher. Let me listen to anyone else in this music; to choose a random performance from the shelf, let me listen to Dejan Lazic on Channel Classics, a rather idiosyncratic player in his own right - he, too, drops a pause in between the first two chords - who nevertheless knows how to marry his own voice to Schubert’s will, rather than setting them against each other in musical conflict. And the best artists, like Alfred Brendel, demonstrate that following Schubert literally does not preclude a fresh approach.
 
Of course, that two-minute Moment Musical is just a tiny fraction of the contents of Tzimon Barto’s 2-CD set, featuring the four Impromptus D899, all six Moments, and the Sonata D894. The rest of the performances are similarly peculiar. Take the third Impromptu, in G flat: Barto lets the piece unfold with stillness bordering on lifelessness. It is like having a second Chopin berceuse, and the effect is rather interesting for about two minutes, after which I must confess to getting bored. I imagine Barto’s set of Chopin nocturnes would run to four compact discs.
 
Putting on any other recording of the G flat Impromptu after this one - let us choose Javier Perianes’ recent album on Harmonia Mundi - is a revelation. Listening to Perianes I realized: ah! This impromptu actually has a beautiful main melody, when it is phrased as if it is a melody and not a series of luminous high notes separated by second-long pauses. And the accompaniment sounds like a harp, accompanying a bard’s song, perhaps, or welcoming us to a faraway dream-land. Not for Barto the evocation of harps. Not for Barto dynamics, either; one of the revelations gained from putting on another recording after his is that some of the main tune’s notes are, in fact, played more loudly or more softly than others.
 
I usually do not make a major point out of track timings, but this seems to be a rather extreme case. Perianes’ performance of the third Impromptu clocks in at 6:43; Vladimir Horowitz and Paul Badura-Skoda both finish at 5:44, and Jeno Jando at 4:55. Tzimon Barto takes 12:14. Twelve minutes to Alfred Brendel’s five. Barto’s recapitulation of the main theme begins at 7:33. By that time, every other pianist is midway through the next piece.
 
Even more stretched-out is the sixth and final Moment Musical; Badura-Skoda takes 7:28, Dejan Lazic 6:40, Brendel 6:23. Barto manages the spectacular achievement of stretching this out to exactly fifteen minutes. I say “achievement,” and indeed it is, but not one to be enjoyed. There is such a thing as offering a novel interpretation, but sometimes no pianist has thought to do something before for a good reason. Schubert marked this “allegretto,” not “largo.” But then, listening to Barto, it is easy to forget that Schubert played a role in the creation of this music.
 
The final Moment begins in plainspoken manner, with a three-chord motif that is then repeated, slightly louder for emphasis and drama, and developed over a span of truly heavenly simplicity. It is reworked into a more expansive melody in the piece’s central section. Tzimon Barto understands none of this; that second statement of the main motif is quieter here, to add mystery, presumably. Two-second pauses divide each appearance of the three chords, although the first two are sometimes separated from the third by even longer hesitations. When the central section arrived (at 7:55), I had been made so numb by the dull, thankless minutes which had passed before to notice that Schubert had united the two themes. Listening to this performance in one sitting is a difficult task.
 
The second Moment, too, is simplicity itself, with an opening that almost does not need to be articulated. Dejan Lazic understands the way that these first bars speak for themselves. Tzimon Barto, in contrast, sounds as if he is playing at somebody’s funeral. At least he hammers out the Moment’s harsh outburst like he means it.
 
I was not sent a review copy of this disc, and luckily did not purchase it; I listened online through a subscription to the Naxos Music Library. I mention this for two reasons. First, my review has been composed solely as a warning to fellow consumers. We all have tight CD budgets, and I would feel poorly if anyone spent their money on these performances who would not have, given sufficient notice.
 
Second, to save your time and mine, and because I was not officially assigned this disc, I would really rather not write a detailed review of Barto’s Sonata D894, except to remark that it suffers from the same deficiencies which afflict the rest of the disc. Indeed, the only works to really be played well here are the fifth Moment musical and the second Impromptu, in A flat, and even that experiences some stop-and-go rhythmic quirks between 2:30 and 3:00.
 
Contrary to the popular myth, we critics do not really enjoy writing negative reviews; I would much rather make everything a “recording of the month.” It means good listening, after all, as well as the pleasure of writing appreciative replies to our experiences. We know that the artists are people, too, with their own visions and sensibilities, and do our best to respect their efforts. But I must confess temptation to violate that unwritten principle, respect, in this case. After all, Tzimon Barto’s performances exhibit little to no respect for the written scores by Franz Schubert, and his rewriting of the dynamics, tempi, rhythms and stresses are tantamount to an insult to the composer. The Capriccio label already has an excellent series of Schubert CDs by Michael Endres; there was no need for this testament to one performer’s egotism. Avoid.
 
Brian Reinhart 

 


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