SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958; Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959; Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899, No. 3 – Inon Barnatan, piano – Avie AV2283, 72:04 [Distr. By Allegro] ****:
Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan completes his survey of the late triptych of Schubert sonatas with these inscriptions (rec. 18-21 October 2012) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City. Like the last three of the Beethoven sonatas, those of Schubert’s 1828 group bear a strong sense of autobiography as well as homage to Schubert’s idol Beethoven. The C Minor Sonata, particularly, bears affinities to both Beethoven’s 1806 Variations in C Minor and the earlier (1798) “Pathetique” Sonata, Op. 13. We should not forget that Schubert’s own Winter’s-Journey song-cycle exerted an influence on his last sonatas. If Beethoven wends his harmonic way to E-flat Major in Pathetique, Schubert chooses the sub-mediant A-flat Major as his progenitor of a series of subsidiary ideas. Barnatan plays Schubert’s often slinky chromatic line naturally and without “dramatic” affectation, much as Artur Rubinstein had two generations prior. The low G that heralds the piece’s opening likewise hails the recapitulation, with Barnatan’s etched bass line meandering its course to a quietly abrupt ending.
Barnatan makes the chorale in A-flat Major Adagio sing much in the way of the Pathetique’s equally notable second movement. Schubert builds the melodic line out of thirds and fourths, much in anticipation of the later Scriabin. Barnatan moves this music alert to its harmonic shifts, adjusting his tempo in the D-flat Minor episode. When the dissonances occur in soft passages, the effect mirrors in condensed form the noble Adagio sostenuto of Beethoven’s Op. 106 “Hammerklavier.” Barnaton characterizes the music in his notes as at once “reassuring and unsettling.” The brief Menuetto extends the harmonic continuities between C Minor and A-flat Major, in what Barnatan calls moments of “Der Erlkoenig alternating with a cheeky waltz.” The last movement has Barnatan’s executing a relentless series of eighth notes, moto perpetuo, in the form of an impish tarantella. The groupings in fourths yield to C-sharp Minor, where Barnatan proffers flourishes in cross-hands technique. A silken performance, this, of a demonic dance that can lose its sense of dark intimacy under less subtle hands.
The A Major Sonata of the same year does exhibit many of the melodic and structural traits as its companion in C Minor. But the degree of flexibility and (enharmonic) resonance has increased, balancing lyrical and dramatic outbursts in a taut alchemy. Much of the material of the first movement finds itself recycled later in the Sonata. Barnatan maintains a deceptively light hand on his first movement, despite the occasional descents into the maelstrom. Small units of melodic kernels or rhythmic impulse somehow coalesce into a massive whole, and we remain unsure of exactly how this magical tissue managed it. Even the coda of the first movement proves iconoclastic, having begun pianissimo and moving to A Major, only to introduce an unsettling B-flat Major arpeggio, a Beethoven device!
Perhaps something of the concentrated drama of Beethoven’s middle movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto informs Schubert’s awesome Andantino second movement in F-sharp Minor. The usual metaphor for the Beethoven has been that of Orpheus’ taming the maenads. The Schubert lamentoso theme in 3/8 rocks gently, a dolorous gondola song. The middle section outdoes Bach for explosive stretti, what Barnatan calls “mounting desperation. . .answered with outbursts of rage.” Then, in a recitative-like cadenza Schubert moves through C-sharp Major to return the simple lament with adorned countermelody floating high above, in the manner of one of many water-borne songs. Barnatan and Schubert disperse the gloom with the ensuing Scherzo: Allegro vivace. The material transforms elements of the previous two movements into a frolic, blissfully optimistic. The Rondo theme for the finale has proven to be a variant of his own Allegretto quasi Andantino movement from the Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (1817). The Presto coda looks back once more, here to the coda of the opening movement. Barnatan trips through its extraordinary variations and asides with fluent poise, emphasizing the innate nobility of its expression.
The perennially lovely G-flat Impromptu serves as Barnaton’s encore. As per the entire recital, the pearly and silken possibilities of Barnatan’s Steinway have reigned over its percussive potential, courtesy of master balance engineer and producer Adam Abeshouse.