Daniel Barenboim’s concerts in London, and his piano recitals in particular, have become perpetual highlights of the classical music calendar. Thus the chance to hear the great maestro play sonatas by Schubert was an opportunity not to be missed, especially if you missed the Wigmore Hall cycle in 2011. Barenboim is typically more associated with the piano sonatas of Beethoven than Schubert, many pianists are, which says something profound about how we view this repertoire, but his restrained and graceful style are the perfect match for these musical gems.

Daniel Barenboim © Silvia Lelli
Daniel Barenboim
© Silvia Lelli

This evening’s programme commenced with a performance of the Piano Sonata no. 9 in B major, D.575. Barenboim’s reluctance to exaggerate or attempt to force ‘depth’ from music at all times worked wonders here. His playing was straightforward without ever being simplistic. The tight motivic working of the first movement, based around a recurring dotted rhythm, was rendered with extraordinary clarity. The decoration of the main theme from the Andante with a countermelody in semiquavers showcased his wonderful control of voicing. Such a carefully considered yet non-invasive approach allowed the sonata to shine through as the elegant piece of music that it is.

This aversion to interpretive excess was carried through in to the performance of the Piano Sonata no. 18 in G major, D.894. The first movement Molto moderato e cantabile was played as Moderato as you will ever hear. As a result the tempo of the second movement was very similar to the first – probably what Schubert intended given the Andante tempo marking – meaning that this easily neglected movement regained its rightful significance within the sonata as a whole. Barenboim’s extraordinary rubatos, always expressive but never indulgent, served this movement well; the slightly slower tempo used for the final appearance of the rondo theme was particularly well judged.

The first movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 19 in C minor, D.958 requires something a little different to the restraint that had characterised Barenboim’s playing so far. Unsurprisingly, he delivered, using the lower register of his custom-made piano to great effect. The slow movement was extraordinary, Barenboim’s infinitely tasteful control of phrasing and tempo lending the music an innocence betrayed only by its depth. In the minuet, he navigated the irregular phrase lengths effortlessly whilst seamlessly blending the occasional silences in to the sequence of ideas. One could perfectly well argue that these rather abrupt silences ought to be made more of, but such effects are not Barenboim’s style. However, the evident thoroughness of his approach ensures that even if one disagrees with his opinion, one must always accept its validity. Despite its restless stream of quavers, the final movement never felt rushed, with due care and attention given to every brief harmonic diversion, an approach that made the articulation of the large-scale form all the more thrilling.

There is almost a naivety to much of this music. However there is great beauty too and of a sort that cannot be found elsewhere. As solo piano music, Schubert’s style threatens to expose the most minute failings of the pianist’s playing ruthlessly. Luckily Barenboim doesn’t have many, not when playing this repertoire at the very least, and the considered yet emotive natures of both performer and composer seemed to find a natural home with one another.