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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No 8 in B minor “Unfinished” D.759
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat minor, Op 23
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo in A major, D.951
Martha Argerich (piano), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. 2019, Salzburg, Austria
Presented in DTS.5.1. PCM Stereo. NTSC 16:9. Colour.
UNITEL 802008 DVD [75 mins]

This disc showcases two legendary musicians but I have mixed feelings about it. Daniel Barenboim the published conductor seems altogether too prolific. Among other things, he recorded the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Schubert and Schumann, some of them repeatedly. This is his third available recording of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto on DVD alone, albeit his first as conductor (he had previously conducted Lang Lang in a rather insipid performance on a CD issued by Deutsche Grammophon). It does not help that Barenboim appears never to have stepped from under the shadow of the great – but quite old-fashioned by today’s standards – Wilhelm Furtwängler. Recorded at the 2019 Salzburg Festival, this release documents a short programme that Barenboim had been touring with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The concert starts unusually with a symphony: Schubert’s “Unfinished”. The performance here is of two extremes. It starts ploddingly; the sheer plushness and warmth of the orchestra undoes Schubert’s forward pulse. One can admire the playing – the soft-grained oboe sound rides a tidal wave of strings – but it is undermined by Barenboim’s odd lingering on phrasing. I am pleased by the inclusion of repeats but this is heavy-going Schubert.

I am not being a period-instrument fetishist here. A romantic approach is absolutely valid for a symphony that did not see the light of day until 1865 but vibrato and modern instruments should not preclude clarity of texture and momentum. Fortunately the Andante, a much trickier, shape-shifting movement, fares a great deal better; it is a triumph. There is less prissiness to the phrasing. The graceful opening melody is allowed to unfold naturally, and that makes the devastating climax all the more satisfying.

The handling of the Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto is more consistent. Martha Argerich is arguably the main draw of this release. There is a DVD of her playing the Tchaikovsky with Charles Groves in the 1977, and several fascinating versions on Youtube where the likes of Charles Dutoit and Antonio Pappano have to work hard to keep up with her. What is new is the fact that she is returning to this work for the first time in decades, a change from her long string of performances of Ravel, Prokofiev 3rd or Beethoven 1st piano concertos.

I am of the opinion that this relentlessly dramatic warhorse is a young person’s work. Argerich’s tone here is silvery and clean, and her playing remains astonishing for this stage of her career. But by her own yardstick she had been far better on multiple audio and visual occasions. On CD, her own competition is exceedingly strong. Just consider her clean, tidy 1994 recording with Claudio Abbado, just a little less exciting than her blazing first recording with Charles Dutoit from 1971.

Barenboim’s input once more comes in fits and starts. He does not drown the soloist out (he did that at the 2019 Proms) but this is grand, soft-focus Tchaikovsky accompaniment. Probably wisely, it gives Argerich some breathing space in the more virtuosic sections but loses serious momentum in an earthbound, rather deliberate finale. Yet, I cannot deny glimpses of brilliance. If the outer movements are on the flabby side, Barenboim conjures some real magic in the second movement. There is exquisite playing from the lead cellist too.

Barenboim was always inconsistent as a conductor. He conducts without a score but given the reliable accounts of his near-photographic memory, there is no hindrance to him knowing each score intimately. The problem is that he knows how brilliant a musician he is, and sometimes gives the impression of acting the role of a conductor. What this marvellous orchestra really needs is to play away with other conductors and shake themselves up. With the lush full-velour strings and a chief making vague abstract shapes on their beat, there is more than a whiff of late-period Herbert von Karajan leading Berlin Philharmonic on autopilot. And that is not a good thing.

My carping stops for the encore. Daniel Barenboim is a pianist first and foremost. The moment he sits next to Argerich, the cold, corporate, overdressed, money pit atmosphere of the Grosses Festspielhaus falls away. The feeling is of two childhood friends performing in a living room. It is a lovely rendition of Schubert’s A Major Rondo, and is the main reason to get this disc.

Recording quality is excellent, Elizabeth Malzer’s video direction is logical and unobtrusive, and the booklet is rather free of performer puff. In short, the Tchaikovsky is so-so; the “Unfinished” befits its name as an interpretation; but the Rondo shows the best of these two formidable musicians. So, the encore is magical. That is not really an endorsement of this rather patchy release.

Barnaby Rayfield

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