How radical can an exposition repeat be? Well, in the hands of Schubert, very radical indeed, it turns out. The sheer scale of the Molto moderato which opens his final piano sonata means that by the time the opening material returns a huge swathe of time has passed, so much so that each re-encountered phrase is seen in the light of all that happened in the mean time. If ever proof were needed that “exact” repetition in music is a fallacy – and that ignoring exposition repeats should be taken seriously – then this movement is it.

Nelson Goerner © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Nelson Goerner
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Schubert’s vast B flat major Sonata, with exposition repeat thankfully intact, made up the second half of this recital from Nelson Goerner. The sweep of the first movement was handled well, though Goerner often felt the need to complicate its moments of simplicity – like the opening theme – with an affected rubato. The Andante sostenuto was more successful and, in the end, proved to be the highlight of an otherwise disappointing evening; rarely did Goerner match the sensitivity and sense of large-scale form that was achieved here.

In contrast to the broad musical paragraphs which closed it, the concert opened with Mozart at his most refined and economical. The Adagio which is unusually placed at the head of the Sonata in E flat K282 presents numerous challenges to the performer and Goerner struggled to integrate its faster filigrees and trills into the broader cantabile lines, his rubato hindering rather than helping the process. In music of such concentration, every harmonic detail must be savoured and made to register – not only the development section’s searching chromaticism, but also the subtler shifts in mood which imbue the music with much of its wistful tenderness. Goerner, however, rarely dug this deep, his workaday delivery displaying none of the music’s wide-eyed wonder. His approach to the second subject displayed a diligent approach to articulation but missed entirely the larger shift towards the more extrovert character that was needed. Another of this movement’s great charms – the manner in which the first subject is withheld in the recapitulation until it is used in an extremely poetic coda of just three bars – failed to register, for by the time Goerner had found a way of articulating its peculiar atmosphere it was already almost over.

The formal innovations of this sonata’s first movement continue at its heart – with two minuets replacing the usual minuet and trio. In the first of these, Goerner attempted to convey the music’s dance-like qualities by playing everything light and short, disregarding the distinctions made between full and staccato crotchets. A fuller approach with more body would have given the music more substance and the grace that it needed. The buoyant feeling of the second minuet was nicely captured, but whilst Goerner’s bodily gestures seemed to suggest he understood its various rhetorical gestures – like the sudden unexpected interruption in the minor – these barely registered aurally.

The sonata finishes with an Allegro – though from this performance one could have easily mistaken it for a Presto. Goerner’s attempt to create excitement by pushing the music forward undermined the overall feel, which actually needs steady and tight rhythm to really work. Furthermore, the movement’s fast passagework requires the engaged clarity of good coloratura rather than the mechanical mindlessness of a Czerny étude that was on offer here.

The performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana that followed was even less successful. As in the Mozart, intimacy and depth of feeling was missing, jettisoned in favour of a virtuoso bravura which, as well as missing the point of much of the work, frequently fell short when it came to musical accuracy. Here, as in the rest of the recital, the dynamic range was lamentably narrow, Goerner rarely taking risks in order to find the true piano that many of Schumann’s innovative textures require if they are really to work their magic.