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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 [29:30]
Piano Sonata in A, D959 [36.01]
Impromptu in G flat, D899 No. 3 [6:23]
Inon Barnatan (piano)
rec. 18-21 October 2012, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC
AVIE AV2283 [72:04]

When Israeli-born Inon Barnatan released his debut album of Schubert piano works in 2006 he was described as ‘a born Schubertian’. In 2009 he curated a festival of the composer’s late piano works, songs and chamber music for the Music Society of Lincoln Center, the first musician other than the Society’s Artistic Directors to be invited to programme concerts there. The resulting ‘Schubert Project’ has since been given at the Concertgebouw, the Festival de México and at the Library of Congress.
Barnatan’s highly-acclaimed disc featured Schubert’s last sonata, D960, and on the present CD he completes the late trilogy with D958 and D959 respectively. These are not easy works, nor are they short, and it is essential for the performer to empathise with the composer’s mind-set during the last year of his life. On paper Barnatan would certainly appear to have the necessary credentials. The fact that he has not only written the sleeve-notes himself, and that these are far more his personal thoughts on the works than merely analytical or biographical commentaries is significant but is the ‘born Schubertian’ accolade truly justified?
The opening work, the Sonata in C minor, D598, begins with an uncanny resemblance to the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in the same key. In fact, with this key eliciting some of the most dramatic works from the German composer - the Fifth Symphony, Pathétique Sonata, and many more - it’s an ideal starting point. Schubert takes over from where Beethoven left off, having died only the year before. There are similarities in the writing - the juxtapositions of aggressive moments with those of an eerie calm, and which Barnatan manages to absolute perfection. He combines a real delicacy of touch with steely finger-work when required. In the serene Adagio which follows the opening Allegro, Barnatan chooses a tempo which really allows the music to breathe, but equally one which does not make it drag, or outstay its welcome. Changes of figuration - as in the middle triplet section - make for a seamless and almost ethereal return of the chorale-like theme. There is darkness here, but it is a different world from the slow movement (Variations) of Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, Op 111, again in C minor. The restless modulations point to an inner turmoil which again Barnatan handles so convincingly, and in which his ability for great tonal contrast plays an important part.
In the ensuing Menuetto, with its catchy waltz-theme, and which makes a telling use of short silences, continuity is not always easy to maintain. This especially where the trio can almost seem unrelated. Once again Barnatan projects a well-studied reading which certainly captures the composer’s intentions faithfully. The final Allegro can be construed as a frantic and virtuosic tarantella - not without perhaps subconscious reference to the finale from Beethoven’s middle-period Sonata in E flat, Op. 31 No. 3 - but into which Schubert once more injects his wonderful sense of telling modulations and key juxtapositions In terms of technique, Barnatan’s playing is flawless, always rhythmically precise, and constantly mindful of the composer’s use of dynamics. Whereas Beethoven’s finale is occasionally nicknamed ‘The Hunt’, Schubert’s is on another, infinitely more demonic level - yes, the concept seems the same. Whereas there is always an over-riding sense of jollity in the former, nothing could be further from the case in the latter, and that’s not just down to major or minor tonality. It goes far deeper than that, and Barnatan so effectively takes his listeners with him on what is at once a convoluted, meandering journey, but paradoxically one where there is never a sense of being lost or losing direction.
On the face of it the Sonata in A, D959, is a completely different animal. Nowhere as tempestuous as the C minor Sonata, this exudes rather a similar lyricism as heard in the composer’s previous essay in the same key, D664. The latter is often referred to as the ‘Little’ A major Sonata, to distinguish it from its far heftier stable-mate on the current CD. Barnatan despatches the opening Allegro with grace and refinement, exceedingly neat articulation and tonal warmth where called for. Furthermore he creates sufficient variety and interest to sustain what, at almost eleven and a half minutes, is quite a substantial opening sonata-form movement, even if the closing bars are quite magical and unexpected.
Barnatan delivers the lilting opening song of the Andantino with melancholy, but which is never overstated. Then, after a sudden stop, the music changes so dramatically, veers into strange keys, presents cascading scales, loud chords punctuating an almost recitative-like line. Just before the initial song is resumed, with a new counterpoint, there are definite ‘flashes’ from the bass line of Schubert’s G flat major Impromptu, which, while listed as a ‘bonus track’ on the CD, now seems such an apt inclusion, rather than a mere ‘bonus’ time-filler.
As Barnatan comments, this section is ‘so unlike anything else Schubert ever wrote’. Even in the opening Allegro, those ‘magical and unexpected’ closing bars mentioned above can surely now be seen as almost prophetic, and heralding the composer’s apparent ‘breakdown’ in the second movement. Although Schubert was at the height of his compositional powers here, he would also have been only too aware of the distressing deterioration in his physical and mental health and at a time when he was only a few weeks away from death. As such, this is so vital to appreciate. It impacts not only on the section itself in the slow movement, but also where subtle ‘allusions’ crop up from time to time in the rest of the sonata as a whole. This is something which Barnatan’s interpretation has so readily embraced so far, and which equally pervades the subsequent Scherzo and closing Rondo.
By a strange irony - or perhaps more by a conscious piece of exceptional programming, then - Barnatan’s performance of the well-thumbed Impromptu in G flat from D899, probably makes the most compelling case for considering this outstanding artist, now in his mid-thirties, a ‘born Schubertian’.
Yes, the two sonatas, with all their great emotional and technical complexity, and challenging demands occasioned by their respective lengths could bestow this accolade unreservedly on their own. Hoiwever, it is the incredibly moving yet astounding simple rendition of the Impromptu, for its mere six minutes or so, that really confirms this. It makes this generous, and exceptionally well-recorded CD well worth investigating, both for the superb content, but moreover for the quite inspirational playing from this as yet none-too-familiar pianist.

Philip R Buttall  

Masterwork Index: Sonatas D958 & 959