Inon Barnatan, Jonathan Biss, and Kuok-Wai Lio, piano, Benjamin Beilman, violin, Gary Hoffman, cello, Doric String Quartet: Chamber Music of Schubert, Playhouse, April 12-15, 2016

There can be few more delightful outings than chamber music gatherings that bring together younger artists – and in what better composer than Schubert!  Such events used to be a regular part of the Vancouver Recital Society’s programming, and it is unfortunate they have become increasingly infrequent.  On this occasion, the three pianists were Inon Barnatan, Jonathan Biss, and Kuok-Wai Lio, each of whom played one of the three last Sonatas.  Barnatan and Biss got together in the piano four-hands Fantasie, the former joining up-and-coming young violinist Benjamin Beilman and patrician cellist Gary Hoffman in the B-flat Piano Trio.  Hoffman (originally from Vancouver) and the Doric String Quartet came together for the great String Quintet.  I was unfortunately able to see only 6 out of the 8 performances, missing Jonathan Biss’ Sonata, D.959 and Randall Scarlatta’s Schwanengesang -- a pity, since sources have informed me that the latter was particularly engaging.

The Doric String Quartet have always taken an interest in Schubert, giving a revealing performance of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet here a few years ago, and also recording it for Chandos. They attempt to probe the composer with leaner textures and only selective vibrato, mixing these with raw and powerful sforzandi when dramatic resolution is needed. I liked this performance of the String Quintet even more than the earlier quartet. The Doric’s approach may take some of the warm glow out of the work, but the compensating benefit is that it makes the work more intimate and closer to the elusive template of ‘eavesdropping on a very private conversation’.  Other British ensembles, notably the Lindsay Quartet, have sought this direction in the past, but this one seemingly went further in making it a truly intense, personal and vulnerable experience. 

This was a beautifully thought-out reading.  Quiet, sparse textures characterized the opening Allegro, but the ensemble never forgot the movement’s consuming flow, serenity and ongoing feeling of build-up and release.  The great cello theme was whispered as pure timeless beauty, yet the periodic dramatic eruptions always served to remind us of the gravity of the utterance, not least at the movement’s close.  There was compelling intelligence at work, the ensemble’s transparency also permitting the beauty of the work’s harmonic synergies to stand out.  The touching Adagio also had great concentration, and brought a lovely refinement and intimacy to the proceedings. While the romantic sentiment was always present, I was frequently thrown back many centuries in the way the accompanying instruments always found a very distilled ‘ground’ to put under each solo exploration: ancient, rustic, almost taking things back to ‘the soil’.  The outburst in the middle conveyed the right yearning and thrusting passion but the ensemble was very successful in restoring the original feeling later on.  The Scherzo had full demonic thrust, only to plunge into one of the tormented and despairing Trio’s I have heard.  This could have easily seemed overdone, but its message stayed true and convincing.  More than usual, the finale tied to the opening movement, finding an almost ‘dancing’ lyricism and many half-lights within its purposive rhythmic structure.  The sparse, clean textures also allowed an allusion back to the sublime cello theme at the work’s opening, increasing the sense of integration.  Overall, the performance had a remarkable organic unity and embodied the highest level of sensitivity.  It reached the soul of the music splendidly.

Some of the same recognition of Schubert’s concept of build-up and release was apparent in Inon Barnatan’s commanding reading of the great B-flat major sonata.  The opening Allegro moderato started from a lovely peace and calm, with a wonderful poise and feeling pushing things forward to increasingly volatile postures.  However, the pianist always succeeded in sustaining the composer’s very private and intimate lyricism, informing many passages with a particularly deep and heartfelt response. Barnatan took us through the full range of Schubert’s feelings: from the fully burdened, through the gently musing, to the youthfully buoyant.  This gave the music’s development a lovely magic and variety, and it all came together very successfully.  It is truly difficult for a younger pianist to balance all these disparate elements. The slow movement was as fine, finding a natural pulse and sustaining concentration throughout.  I think Barnatan was really his own person, finding novel extremes of expression but always resolution too.   There was much that was beautiful but there was also a macabre element present: sometimes malevolent spirits abounded, almost chasing the music.  The clipped, pointed character of much of the last two movements likely aimed to capture a sort of mental instability (even giddiness) that might have characterized Schubert’s last days. There is nothing controversial about this viewpoint, yet I found the pianist’s consistent pointing of rhythms and phrases somewhat too possessed, the spectre of instability possibly dominating other important postures.  If Barnatan’s expression here was less rich in variety, this was still a very fine performance overall.  

Young Macau-born pianist Kuok-Wai Lio came to attention just last spring, when he replaced Radu Lupu in a recital in New York’s Town Hall.  He also deputized here later on. Lio has very fine technical command, is conscientious and thoughtful, and spins out a wonderfully solid, full tone. These are fine credentials for embarking on Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D.958, even if success in the last sonatas is never guaranteed.  The strength of the opening bars, and the pianist’s transition into more expansive musing, were judged to perfection, promising the best.  Later on, however, I felt Lio became less free lyrically, a little too disciplined and hard, responding more to the drama of the music than its tenderness.  He also tended to speed up imperceptibly when approaching climaxes, losing some degree of poise.  The expressive Adagio had some good things but I still felt that it moved in a fairly rigid way, with a degree of heaviness.  Perhaps it was also too generalized in feeling: not intimate enough, nor judged finely enough in dynamics.  The treatment of the detached, enigmatic notes at the end seemed unidiomatic. There was much alert playing in the Menuetto, and even stronger articulation in the finale. Conscientiousness was the keynote, though the decisive rhythms of the latter made it of a bit of a ‘horse-ride’ home.  Nonetheless, Lio commands the keyboard beautifully.

It was an inspired idea to have Inon Barnatan and Jonathan Biss come together for the famous piano four-hands Fantasie, and they seemed to enjoy themselves in true Schubertiade style: lots of playful informality, lots of passion and rubato, while also attacking the work’s counterpoint with great enthusiasm.  Overall, this tended to be a robust, intense performance (with even a ‘jazzy’ element and some Sturm und Drang thrown in for good measure), and different from those that play up the more austere and enigmatic qualities in the work. The lovely melancholic theme that dominates the opening and close of the work had more romantic inflection than usual in Biss’ hands.  Given the massive historical claims of Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu, Alfred Brendel and Evelyn Crochet, and Paul Lewis and Imogen Cooper, it is not clear that one would want to place the current offering at the top, but it was certainly interesting to hear – and fun to watch.

25 year old American violinist Benjamin Beilman participated in two of the works, the Fantasie in C, with Kuok-Wai Lio, and the B-flat Piano Trio, with Inon Barnatan and Gary Hoffman. Beilman has received very strong press elsewhere, and he has such a charming presence on stage. His tone is very clean and pure, and he does not shy away from the dramatic: he is releasing his debut disc for Warner Classics as we speak.  Unfortunately, on this occasion, his inexperience as a chamber musician seemed to show, and he (perhaps ironically) exuded very little Schubertian charm in his playing.

Schubert’s Fantasie for Violin and Piano is by all standards a fairly thin work, and requires considerable dose of charm and ingenuity to bring off its strange mixture of the virtuoso and mock-dramatic. This did not go as well. The first problem was that Kuok-Wai Lio played the piano part pretty ‘straight’, not finding much lift, enthusiasm and flair along the way. The additional problem was that Beilman seemed slightly outside of the work, trying so hard to enter its fabric that his playing often seemed ‘forced’.  In the quieter passages, he was too pretty and came off as sentimental while, in the more demonstrative passages, he attacked them too seriously and with too much venom.  Of course, the violinist displayed many moments of stellar playing as such: it was just that they did not fit the music very well. This was fairly heavy weather: the humour, delight and light frolic of this piece were not fully tapped.

Inon Barnatan anchored the performance of the B-flat major Piano Trio, displaying attractive rhythmic solidity and lyrical sensibility.  Gary Hoffman’s wonderfully easeful and elegant presentation of the opening cello theme revealed just how considered and sensitive an artist he is. But again Beilman seemed to find it difficult to relax into this world of cultivation and charm.  His strong balance against Hoffman did not help, but it was his endless spiky phrasing, and his desire to push each phrase out with a strong crescendo while hitting all sforzandi ultra-hard, that proved distracting and really raised the question marks.  It was almost like he was playing a sharp-edged ‘modern’ piece rather than Schubert.  This was very cold playing indeed; not really a hint of charm or flow either.  Perhaps he was trying too hard.  Even in the lovely Andante, Hoffman would push out a phrase with the most cultivated lyrical ease but then Beilman would respond with an extra dose of passion and fervour -- just to emphasize the point.  The ‘passion’ was applied for effect; I knew that and the violinist knew that.  I think this could have been a fine performance, but Beilman’s attempts to heighten drama and verve exhausted me by the end.  He is a most promising young violinist, but there is understandably a lot more for him to learn.

It was a redeeming experience to see all these younger performers at this Schubertiade.  By definition, you do not expect them to be fully mature, and you enjoyably live with their mistakes and stylistic uncertainties.  That said, all of these performers exhibited artistry that must eventually compete with the best – if it does not already -- and that is a very satisfying outcome. Given their track record these days, the stellar performances by the Doric Quartet and Inon Barnatan might have been expected, yet I was still taken by the sheer strides that both have made over the past five years. Now if I only had a chance to hear Randall Scarlatta’s Schwanengesang!


© Geoffrey Newman 2016