Now approaching his seventieth birthday, Daniel Barenboim is not letting up.
He’s not infallible – Deutsche Grammophon would have done him a bigger favour by sitting on his clumsy Chopin recital in Warsaw, than they recently did by releasing it – but he’s still expanding his repertoire. A Southbank foray on Monday saw him brilliantly tease out the poetry of Liszt’s concertos, and at the Wigmore he ventured into late Schubert.
Technical virtuosity is not the issue here: this deceptively subtle music demands a highly refined aesthetic control. Schumann’s warning about the Sonata in G D894 still holds: ‘Let those who lack the imagination to solve the riddles of the last movement stay away.’ Its first movement – ‘Molto moderato e cantabile’ - opens with infinite tenderness, and lays out its landscape with grave deliberation, and, despite its recurring surface-dramas, maintains a serene underlying calm.
Barenboim’s approach seemed calculated to provoke dissent, dissipating measured evenness with declamatory, choppy phrasing and abrupt dynamic shifts. The repeated notes were hammered rather than caressed, and there was far too much fortissimo: this was Schubert shorn of his thoughtful spaciousness, and played as though he was Beethoven. Only in the latter stages of the minuet did we hear the composer’s authentic voice; only there did Barenboim find the poetry. The concluding Allegretto was played with too heavy a touch for its playful skittishness to emerge.
After a long interval – this was a short programme – it was time for the Sonata in C minor D958, containing miracles of invention, and written in a prolific fizz as Schubert’s health was failing. But here Barenboim’s touch was appropriate, as the first movement opens with an explicit echo of Beethoven, and is full of Beethovenian gestures.
Schubert had always wanted to escape from Beethoven’s shadow, and Barenboim showed how he did this. The mournful grandeur of the first movement, with its serpentine semiquaver runs, led to the hymn-like Adagio which here acquired passionate eloquence; the music’s strangely tentative gasps in the minuet were delicately rendered, and the hurtling Tarantella became a brilliantly-controlled tussle between fancy and fieriness. Radu Lupu – the greatest living exponent of Schubert’s piano music – could not have done better. No encore: instead, Barenboim was presented with the Critics’ Circle’s highest annual award, and gratefully acknowledged his 55-year relationship with the Wigmore Hall.