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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Keyboard Sonatas – C minor, D958 (1828) [32’20]; A, D959 (1828) [41’53].
Andreas Staier (fortepiano).
Rec. Studio DeutschlandRadio, Cologne, in 1996. [DDD]
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 2564-60442-2 [74’26]

Andreas Staier plays these late Schubert sonatas on an 1825 Johann Fritz fortepiano (the recordings have previously been available on Teldec Das Alte Werk 0630 13143-2, a two-disc set which also included the great D960). They now appear on a mid-price issue, representing a considerable bargain. Purely from a historical performance viewpoint, there is much of interest here: Staier plays on an 1825 Johann Fritz four-pedalled fortepiano. In doing so, he immediately comes into competition with Paul Badura-Skoda (on Arcana A17, whose chosen instrument is an 1846 J. M. Schweighofer Viennese piano). If we widen the field to include the modern concert grand, of course Mitsuko Uchida on Philips appears as a leading contender (alas not at this price, though). Imogen Cooper is no stranger to these pieces, either, and her recent concert performances have attested to her affinity to Schubert’s keyboard world.

Right from the opening of the C minor (D958), Staier finds natural flow and demonstrates an enviable sensitivity to Schubert’s harmonic progressions while remaining true to the Beethovenian elements contained within the notes. Accents and dynamics are exciting, the dramatic schema vividly projected (Badura-Skoda is more thoughtful, his rhythms not quite as alive). Staier’s Adagio is, again, presented in the most natural of fashions, and is all the more touching for it. Only the hesitations before the block chords (c2’45 in) do not come across as entirely convincing.

The lively speed for the finale does not, commendably, lead to any muddying of textures (the very nature of the instrument helps here). His handling of the passage around 3’15, a cantabile right hand against a rustling left is pure delight – after hearing Staier, Badura-Skoda in this movement seems rather disjunct and rough and ready.

Imogen Cooper gave the last live performance of D959 I heard (at the Wigmore Hall in July). Staier sets out to give a robust account – he is almost brutal before a defining feature of this sonata’s opening, the ‘church cadence’. Despite his determination, though, some contrapuntal passages do emerge as laboured. His Andantino lacks Cooper’s Winterreise-like sense of stasis, although he does to an extent redeem himself with the famous manic outburst (immediately before the recitative-like passage, the fortepiano sounds as if it will burst!). Similarly, it is entirely characteristic of Staier’s account that the Scherzo, while appearing capricious and cheeky, can also at times verge on the violent.

Alas, it is only in the finale that Staier can in any real way be said to disappoint. This movement (marked Allegretto) requires the calm unfolding of Cooper or Uchida. Staier is lumpy in his presentation of the initial theme and he thumps later on (around 5’20). This emerges as a good but not elevating presentation of a finale that can be so much more and as if to confirm this, the coda verges on the breathless.

Very much a disc worth hearing, then, and one that will surely complement some treasured modern instrument performances of these works.

Colin Clarke

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