The Vancouver Recital Society’s Schubertiade continued last evening with more heavenly music by Franz Peter Schubert.
The concert opened with what I feel to be the greatest work written for piano, four hands, the composer’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, with pianists Inon Barnatan (primo) and Jonathan Biss (secondo). I have long noticed that the main theme of this work shares many similarities to the theme of Haydn’s Variation in F minor, Hob XVII:6, and Barbarina’s aria from Act IV of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (“L’ho perduta…me meschina!”) Not only are the pieces all in the identical key, the melodic outline as well as affect of the music are all very similar. Living in Vienna, Schubert would have been very aware of music by Mozart and Haydn. Obviously we will never know if he was, consciously or subconsciously, influenced by the aforementioned works.
The two young artists were completely in sync with each other in every aspect of their performance. At the beginning, Biss played the main theme with a simplicity that is quite appealing, and Barnatan used the pedal sparingly, giving the music a clear texture. The pianists gave us a magical pianissimo when the theme returns at m.91 (with triplet accompaniment in the secondo). I appreciated Barnatan’s sense of direction and his lightness in his playing of the chord sequences in the Largo section. The dance-like Allegro vivace section was played with great energy and relish. The section at m.273, marked con delicatezza, was played with incredible lightness and charm. Biss and Barnatan’s pacing and build-up of that incredible fugue beginning at m. 474 were impeccable.
After that incredibly intense first work, Barnatan returned alone and gave us the Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. I find much to admire in his interpretation of this iconic work. In especially the first and second movements, Barnatan was a Furtwängler rather than a Toscanini, giving the music slight shifts in tempo according to its ebb and flow. His playing of the opening bass trill (m. 8) was filled with tension and purpose. He did not overplay the G-flat major theme at m. 20, letting it come out with a beguiling simplicity. The Andante sostenuto movement was also wonderfully done. I thought his voicing of the right hand at the beginning was done especially beautifully. In the A major middle section, Barnatan gave the music a choral sound.
The artist played the Scherzo movement at a terrific clip, but with a lightness that prevented the music from feeling breathless. He took the Trio section at a slightly slower tempo. I personally feel that the two sections should be played at the same tempo, but certainly his interpretation is valid. Barnatan’s playing of the fourth movement was pianistically stunning, and his timing impeccable. I really loved the way he played those off-beat “pizzicato” notes in the left hand while the right hand was playing the rapid broken chords. And he successfully built the music from the first notes to a rousing finish.
I would like to hear the artist play this work again in a decade or so. At this point, I can’t help feeling that, at times, he is slightly over-interpreting the music, trying a little too hard to discover the inner beauties of the score. If he were to let the music speak for itself more, I believe his music making would be even more moving.
After the intermission, Barnatan returned with violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Gary Hoffman in another Schubertian masterpiece, the Trio in B-flat major, D. 898. It was, overall, a very successful performance. There was unanimity in the interpretation that was noticeable from beginning to end. For me, the most moving was their playing of the Andante un poco mosso movement, as the music came off the most naturally. In the other movements, I again got the feeling that perhaps the performers pushed the music a little too much, which results in an edge in the music making. I think Beilman and Barnatan have brighter, more soloistic sounds, which can be problematic in a chamber music setting. When Beilman played with Lio on Tuesday, there was much more of a sense of ensemble, rather than individuals playing together. Perhaps the fact that the three artists have such radically different sounds did not give the performance a feeling of an organic whole.
To be sure, it was a very exciting performance, and the audience certainly roared its approval at the end. As in the sonata, if the musicians had let the music speak for itself, the music making would have been outstanding.
As I was driving home, I could not help but wonder how it was possible that so much beauty could have been conceived by one mind, especially considering the brevity of time. Any argument that our existence on earth is a mere result of chance, of genetics, has probably not heard the music of Franz Schubert.