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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1928)
Piano Sonata No 20 in A major D.959 (1828)
Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor D.821 (1824)
Wu Han (Piano)
David Finckel (Cello)
Rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, June 2003. DDD
ARTISTLED 10401-2 [66:46]


Schubertís late piano sonatas are amongst the greatest of his works and, in my view, are the only ones that rank alongside Beethovenís contribution to the genre. Several great pianists of the 20th century recorded these works. The complement includes Kempff and Brendel and there is plenty of competition including more recent recordings by Schiff and Perahia. Most of these come either as part of a set or in pairs of sonatas but there are some instances where more innovative juxtapositions have been made. An example is to be found in Leif Ove Andsnesís recent versions of the 17th and 20th sonatas which are both coupled with Schubert lieder. In Wu Hanís case we have the central work of the trilogy of sonatas written just weeks before Schubertís death coupled with the Arpeggione Sonata, written four years earlier and played on the cello. Your view on such a pairing may well depend on which discs of Schubert you already have. A record such as this could nicely fill a gap ... or not. Aside from "collecting" considerations though, this is an appropriate pairing which works well; both works having A as the tonic.

The ArtistLed label "evolved out of the desire of two musicians (Wu Han and David Finckel) to produce recordings in an environment free of constraints". Effectively this means that they are both producers and performers and, as far as I could tell, this works perfectly well. The sound is natural and well-balanced, and the presentation of the disc is excellent, particularly the "listening guide". This takes you through the works pointing out the structure and key moments (with timings), and is analogous to what you get with some operas instead of a libretto. The booklet is attractively illustrated and also contains an essay on ĎSchubert and melodyí. The performers/producers are too modest to tell us anything about themselves (although biographies can easily be found on their website). So the disc looks a good proposition but what of the performances?

Wu Han plays the D.959 Sonata with great conviction and takes no liberties with the score. She is equally alive to both the lyrical and darker elements of the work. In the first movement she plays the exposition repeat, which is often omitted on disc and seems to be important structurally (otherwise the last movement will be longer than the first). This is a performance that captures both the spirit of each movement and sweep of the whole work. Before I heard it I thought that this sonataís successor (No 21 in B flat D.960) was a greater work; now I am not so sure.

Having greatly enjoyed Wu Hanís performance, I dug out some competition in the form of Kempff (1968), Tirimo (1996) and Brendel (a live recording from Snape in 1999). Perhaps not surprisingly, the sound is markedly preferable on this new record to all the others (sadly, Tirimoís disc has a particularly unflattering acoustic). Brendel and Kempff both provide many interpretative insights but there are downsides (for example the slow tempo of Kempffís scherzo just doesnít sound right) and, overall, I prefer the less interventionist approach of Wu Han and Tirimo.

There are also plenty of alternative versions of the Arpeggione Sonata and here the competition includes Rostropovich and Britten recorded in excellent sound in 1968. But itís the same story again with Rostropovich seeming "larger than life"; Finckelís more reticent approach seems to serve this music better. The veiled tone he adopts in the slow movement provides for an appropriately rapt atmosphere and the transition into the finale is beautifully executed. Wu Hanís contribution is both important and highly sympathetic.

This is a most successful disc Ė if you are looking for these two works, donít hesitate. Even if you have other versions, it should not be ignored. Looking at ArtistLedís catalogue and aspirations, I was unsure whether or not more Schubert might be forthcoming but I hope so.

Patrick C Waller


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