It’s difficult to believe that the city of Dubrovnik was once a real city and not one solely constructed to be a hot-spot for tourism. Everything is so entirely picturesque that it’s hard to believe that people have lived and worked here. During the day it’s jammed full of tourists, but by night the city acquires a buzzing atmosphere. Still full of tourists but now without its cruise-ship visitors and the scorching sun, there’s something entirely more romantic about it – even if it remains rather unreal.
Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Schubert’s piano music as part of the Dubrovnik summer festival certainly suits this fantasy city. Although, Schubert’s piano music is currently fashionable for concert pianists (Mitsuko Uchida’s performed the last three piano sonatas earlier this year to rave reviews, and Paul Lewis is currently touring with Schubert’s piano music), the choice of this open-air venue sets it apart. Nothing like the Rector’s Palace could ever exist in the UK. Audience members sit on the steps of a stone staircase which leads up to a balcony where more sit and peer down at the piano creating a sense of utter intimacy. Before the concert even starts it already feels like a very special occasion. (See photos of the venue here: http://www.dubrovnik-festival.hr/the-rectors-palace-audience-bows-to-the-great-maes)
Barenboim begins the first half with a selection of four Impromptus from D. 899 and D. 935. It takes him a while to get started, with Impromptu No. 1 of D. 899 in C minor sounding a little tentative. However by the following Impromptu No. 1 of D.935, he’s already saved himself. A new direction can seemingly appear from nowhere, and we’ve arrived somewhere else before we’ve realised that we’ve left. Barenboim seamlessly sinks into new tonal landscapes without even breaking sweat. But it’s with the last two Impromptus, No. 3 of D. 935 in B flat, and No. 4 of D. 899 in A flat, that he comes into his own. In the B flat Impromptu Barenboim relishes taking the opening theme, a beautiful but simple tune, through the different characters of its variations. Yet it’s the lower timbre of its final return, where Schubert is his most sombre and meaningful, that both composer and performer grasp at the sublime. Similarly, he expertly captures the opposing characters of the final Impromptu. The joyful opening, with careless sprinklings in the right hand, is utterly convincing. But so too is the tormented middle section, with its rapid change from lightness to a pained calling, which sings morosely.
The Piano Sonata in A, D. 959 makes up the entire second half. Barenboim takes the tempo of the opening movement slightly faster than expected which becomes more apparent during the second theme. It makes it less lyrical but also more flowing. However he uses some rubato here, perhaps to make up for this. The faster tempo can’t be faulted too much since it allows Barenboim to repeat the exposition which otherwise would have to be omitted to prevent it from becoming too long. The repeat makes the movement easier to navigate, especially with the seamless entry into the development which can be easy to miss.
Barenboim continues the faster tempo in the second movement, Andantino. His use of pedal is sparser, making the repeated octaves in the left hand acquire a more agitated feel. Barenboim misses the point slightly here since the opening is meant to achieve a sense of timelessness, made possible only when the music is calm. The drama in this movement is the way that the violent middle section appears from nowhere, and the full effect of this can only be felt when it contrasts completely with a timeless opening. He also slightly tempers the middle section’s storm and he doesn’t let rip as much as I’d have liked. Perhaps he fears making the lyrical Schubert sound too harsh, but the music requires it so the trauma of the stormy middle section against the calm outside sections can really be felt.
The jump straight into the third movement Scherzo is almost pixie-like in its liveliness. But it’s with the last movement Rondo that Barenboim really has his fun, especially as the work draws to a close. Schubert writes an entire bars rest with a pause. Barenboim halts here suddenly, and lifts his hands completely off the keyboard. The moment of silence is huge, and Barenboim’s actions grant the moment the full amount of tension it demands. Then follows a series of different moods: first a moment of affection, then violence, then lyricism, and finally the majestic closing chords. Each of these is compelling beyond doubt, making a grand conclusion for the concert.