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Schubert’s Brief Candle, Burning Bright

11.10.09
Inon Barnatan
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

In nearly any consideration of the truly great works that Schubert produced in 1828, the year of his death at 31, worshipful awe and breathless hyperbole go hand in hand. The awe is understandable: it is hard to fathom that pieces like the last three Piano Sonatas, the String Quintet in C and the song collection “Schwanengesang,” among others, were created in so brief a time and by a composer who probably knew he was terminally ill. The hyperbole can be less fortunate: how does a mere mortal form a personal relationship with art so invariably beatified?

Schubert Ascending, a three-concert sampling of Schubert’s 1828 output assembled by the pianist Inon Barnatan, deals in both dimensions. The series, previously presented in Amsterdam and Mexico City, opened at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. With the music — here, the Piano Sonata in C minor (D. 958); the Fantasy in F minor for piano, four-hands (D. 940); and the String Quintet in C (D. 956) — came the usual program-note superlatives.

No question, this is extraordinary art, and being confronted with so much of it at once is both uplifting and humbling. Moreover, the 30-year-old Mr. Barnatan’s youth, you realized, watching him at work in the sonata, mirrored Schubert’s own when he created these pieces.

Mr. Barnatan’s feel for Schubert was immediately evident in the stormy ascent and gentle cascading fall of the sonata’s opening bars. Schubert’s writing struck a balance between Mozart’s amiability and Beethoven’s heaven-storming quest for transcendence. Mr. Barnatan gave full measure to both impulses, contrasting a firm hand in turbulent flights with a tender touch and ruminative flexibility in more wistful passages.

Working in a genre chiefly meant to charm private social gatherings, Schubert still managed to convey in the four-hand fantasy a sense of time passing too quickly, not least in the urgent, fidgeting scherzo that precedes the eventual return of the opening theme. Mr. Barnatan, at the low end of the keyboard, provided a firm foundation for the cheery flights and wistful contemplations of his partner, Orion Weiss.

In its combination of otherworldly ache, hardy sinew and abundant charm, Schubert’s String Quintet warrants extravagant encomiums. A performance by the Borromeo String Quartet and the cellist Nicolas Altstaedt was almost ideal in matters of pacing, balance and spirit. But intonation was noticeably awry, and for Mr. Altstaedt in particular, passion often lapsed into brusqueness.