Schubert: Trois marches militaires, D733; Grand Duo, D812; Eight Variations, D813

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Trois marches militaires, D733; Grand Duo, D812; Eight Variations, D813
PERFORMER: Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-17146-2
Barenboim’s Mozartian credentials were established beyond a shadow of doubt many years ago, and he’s now recording his second complete cycle of the piano concertos, updating, as it were, his distinguished but now ageing series with the English Chamber Orchestra. In the intervening years, much has happened in the way of musicological political correctness, but this would appear to have had little impact, if any, on Barenboim’s outlook. Overall, these are good mid-century-style performances, with the accent firmly on the good. In vitality, sophistication, texture and chamber-music responsiveness, these accounts go right into the top bracket.

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Barenboim’s gifts and accomplishments are so prodigious, and his general musical approach so large-scale, that one easily forgets the exemplary delicacy of his playing. The subtlety and detail of his phrasing and articulation throughout these admirable performances are idiomatic to their figurative fingertips. A further virtue of these readings is the degree of wit and humour which rises effortlessly to the surface whenever the music calls for it.

If chamber music is ‘the music of friends’, then the Brahms Double Concerto, as played here, is chamber music writ large. Perlman and Ma know the music and each other so well that their performance bears all the hallmarks of civilised conversation at its most responsive and lively. The sheer aural sheen of the performance is unsurpassed in my experience, yet the music’s deeper and occasionally darker reaches are in no way sacrificed on the altar of mere euphony. It was this work, more than any other, which brought about the reconciliation of Brahms and the great violinist Joachim after a prolonged and particularly painful rift, and consciously or otherwise, the interplay between the soloists here reflects the fact in virtually every bar. The bitter-sweet rapture of close friendship restored could hardly be caught more poignantly, or, in the end, more excitingly than here. Barenboim draws from the orchestra a subtlety and eloquence which aptly matches the colloquy of the soloists, and an unobtrusive polyphonic awareness which makes a mockery of the knee-jerk charge that Brahms’s orchestral writing is thick and ponderous.

The four-hand piano repertoire is essentially music for players, not performers. Generally speaking, it has not been devised, at least not primarily, with audiences in mind. That it has proved a source of conviviality is really another matter. And for some reason it seldom brings out the best in those who play it. In the present case, for instance, despite the many strengths and undoubted delights along the way, there is a degree of four-square phrasing and an excessively metrical angularity in the unfurling of melodies that one would not expect from either Barenboim or Lupu in a solo sonata.

Barenboim’s Schubert playing is less familiar than Lupu’s, and is therefore to a certain extent a relatively unknown quantity, but time after time, Lupu, in his many Schubert recordings, has proved himself one of the subtlest, supplest and most lyrical interpreters of this century. His Schubert is generally exquisitely shaped, iridescent in texture, and often striking a near-miraculous balance of the improvisatory and the symphonic. Barenboim, too, is no mean colourist, nor as an outstanding Mozartian is he any stranger to lyrical subtlety and textural variety. Yet for all its many beauties and mutually responsive interchanges, this account of the Grand Duo in particular has a relentless quality and a surfeit of sheer loudness that had me longing for release from the piano.

Interestingly, I had just been listening to Lupu’s wonderful recording of the Brahms F minor Sonata when Barenboim’s reached me. His, too, is an immensely impressive account, clearly the work of a conductor, and one used to dealing in epic terms. More than most performances, it leaves one completely incredulous that this tremendous edifice was the work of a twenty-year-old who looked and sounded more like a girl than a young man. Inevitably, perhaps, I was reminded of Schumann’s famous reference to Brahms’s piano sonatas as Veiled symphonies’ – except that in Barenboim’s hands the veils are off. So orchestral is his approach, so symphonic is his conception, so grand are the sonorities he draws from his instrument that the distinction between the piano and an orchestra is altogether forgotten. Here I felt no trace of that relentless piano-ism which so marred the Grand Duo for me.

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But then, of course, this isn’t a piano duet. And Barenboim’s soft playing is as impressive as his loud. Beauties abound in this performance. Only in parts of the scherzo did’I feel the heavy tread of’structure’ impeding the music’s momentum; I was too conscious of the interpreter’s hand. Apart from this, however, and a few moments of melodic stasis in the second movement, it strikes me as a performance of enormous distinction. The Ballades, too, are filled with admirable things, but here I felt a certain want of spontaneity. There’s a somewhat forbidding austerity in Barenboim’s view of these pieces, aptly reflecting the inner turmoil in Brahms’s life at the time, but I rather wondered whether this might be a case of biography intruding on the music.