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
. Barto’s recapitulation of the main theme begins
at 7:33. By that time, every other pianist is midway through the
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
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
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