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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Reflections on Schubert
CD1
Fantasy in C, D760 (‘Wanderer Fantasy’) (1822) [21:44]
Piano Sonata in G, D894 (1826) [31:31]
Four Lieder (transcribed for piano by Franz LISZT) (Erlkönig, D328 [4:49]; Der Müller und der Bach, D795 [6:02]; Liebesbotschaft, D957 [3:10]; Ave Maria, D839 [5:46])
CD2
Piano Sonata in A, D664 (1819?) [19:38]
12 Ländler, D790 (1823) [10:24]
Three Piano Pieces, D946: Impromptu in C (1828) [4:26]
Four Impromptus, D899: Impromptu in G-flat (1827) [5:46]
Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960 (1828) [37:11]
Michael Coonrod (piano, Steinway)
rec. Corson Auditorium, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Michigan, USA, 5-7 January; 29-31 August 2006. DDD (?)
WORLD RECORDS No Number (Barcode 6 34479 45376 2) (CD Matrix numbers V12193CRTMCREFLECT1 and V12194CRTMCREFLECT2) [2CDs 74:52+77:31]

 


At first I thought this was a début recording by a young pianist.  I was partly correct: this does appear to be a recording début but, from the biographical details and photographs which accompany the recording, it is apparent that Michael Coonrod is no spring chicken, having been a piano faculty member at the Interlochen Arts Academy for 31 years.  As will be apparent from the details above, I am not sure how widely available the recording will be – the absence of a catalogue number will presumably make ordering difficult, so I have included a hyperlink to the Coonrod website for those interested in checking availability. 

The Wanderer Fantasy opens powerfully, though with too much aggression.  This section is marked Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo and this is troppo.  Coonrod then reins in fairly sharply, as if realising that he has overdone it, thereby over-emphasising the lyrical sections.  Listening to Brendel’s 1972 version immediately afterwards confirms my impression that Coonrod is an accomplished pianist who has not quite decided where he wants to go with this music.  Brendel’s performance hangs together more and shows what is wrong with Coonrod’s: to use terms appropriate to Schubert’s Lieder, whereas Brendel’s playing is durchkomponiert (through-composed), Coonrod sounds more stanzaic. 

The Adagio section receives a soulful performance but, again, comparison with Brendel shows Coonrod to be overdoing things at the outset.  By around the half-way mark this has settled into an almost ideal performance, affective but not over-wrought.  Coonrod’s clean and precise playing of the runs and the staccato chords which follow and the transition between them is fully the equal of Brendel’s.

The Presto section is also well played, with a good balance between the turbulent, lyrical and wistful elements and clean transitions between them.  By now Coonrod’s playing is becoming more through-composed and, with a seamless transition to the final Allegro section, the performance hangs together more, though some of the phrasing is still a little inelegant at times.  A nimble-fingered conclusion to the work brings a more favourable impression overall than I had anticipated at the outset, though I still find the performance as a whole falling short of Brendel’s.

Coonrod’s recording is realistic and unobtrusive, with the piano rather forwardly recorded.  I take this to be a DDD recording – the documentation does not even carry the normal Compact Disc logo – and it is preferable to Brendel’s ADD recording, which is beginning to show its age, though perfectly acceptable. This 1972 version, still my benchmark, is no longer available, though the digital remake, which many prefer, is still to be had: Philips 422 062 2, coupled with the Piano Sonata D960.  But watch out for duplication in the form of the Brendel recordings of D960 recommended below. 

Brendel’s ADD version of D960 is still available at lower-mid price on the Philips Duo label, coupled with the two other late sonatas, D958 and D959 and the Piano Pieces D946 (438 703 2).  It, too, remains my benchmark recording for this sublime work, especially now that Curzon’s excellent version is available only in multi-disc format.

As with the Wanderer, I listened to Coonrod’s performance in its entirety before comparing it with Brendel’s but, inevitably, memories of Brendel and Curzon coloured my listening.  The calm opening of the first movement matches the molto moderato marking and promises well for the performance as a whole: Coonrod resists the temptation at this stage to lay on too much emotion – if anything, he sometimes smoothes over the more affective moments in this movement, though he gives the music its full weight at around 10 minutes in.  As in the Wanderer, some of the transitions are rather abrupt; at this point I was again thinking of an accomplished pianist who sees the music in sections rather than as a whole.  As in parts of the Wanderer, too, some of the phrasing strikes me as less than ideal. 

If one were sitting in a concert without Beckmesser’s critical slate to hand, one would probably be well pleased with the playing but in such a competitive field the superlative (Brendel, Curzon, etc.) is, as always, the enemy of the good.  In particular, Coonrod is seldom content to stay with a steady tempo: Brendel is sometimes accused of agogic distortion in Schubert but here it is Coonrod who more often steps slightly over the barrier of what is acceptable in the name of expression.  It isn’t so much a matter of tempo as of Brendel’s maintaining a more constant impulse.

Brendel’s time for this movement (14:42) is one of the fastest – in his later recording he is a shade slower at 15:05 – but Coonrod slightly undercuts him at 14:35.  The movement as a whole does not sound rushed from Coonrod – even less so from Brendel – but the fastish tempo may explain some of the slightly inelegant phrasing which I noted.

In the Andante sostenuto, the emotional heart of this sonata, Coonrod’s playing is really affective.  He is markedly slower than Brendel but he justifies the slower tempo, stressing the movement’s affinity with the similarly emotive slow movement of the String Quintet.  He has the measure of this movement because he has thought it through as a whole and his transitions from section to section are smoothly accomplished.  By comparison with Brendel he may seem to overdo the emotion slightly but I stress that Coonrod’s version of this movement makes excellent sense in its own terms.

The light and nimble Scherzo really is played con delicatezza; Coonrod actually makes it sound easy to play but I would have preferred a steadier tempo throughout this movement and the Finale, which otherwise receives a good performance.

Needless to say, playing the Brendel version afterwards took me onto a higher plane, where everything hung together.  The ADD Philips recording hardly shows its age but, if you really demand DDD, you may prefer the later (live) recording, also available in a mid-price 2-CD package (Philips 475 7191, coupled with D784, D840, D894 and D959: see Dominy Clements’s review for details). 

I have concentrated on the Wanderer and D960 because any Schubert recording which contains these works stands or falls by the performances of these pieces.  Clearly, if it is these works that you want, look elsewhere.  If Brendel is not to your taste, there are other excellent versions in all price ranges.  I am not sure what price range the Coonrod set belongs in but, unless it is in the lowest price category, it simply is not competitive.

The G-flat impromptu is very well played but here, too, the superlative ousts the good, once again in the form of Brendel’s 1972-5 complete Impromptus, with various shorter pieces, on Philips 442 543 2 or coupled with the Klavierstücke D946, Moments musicaux and German Dances on Philips Duo 456 061 2.  Or you could try the early Brendel/Vox recordings of the Impromptus and Moments at super-bargain price on Regis RRC1019: early Brendel was a real phenomenon – when his Mozart recordings were first made available in the UK by World Record Club, they caused a considerable stir and his Schubert was every bit as fine. 

The two other sonatas, D664 and D894, are well played.  The performance of D894 is especially sensitive, from a soulful opening to a lively final Allegretto.  The competition for D664 is less fierce but in D894 Coonrod again comes up against Brendel (the DDD recording on 475 7191) and other first-rate accounts.  Even with good recording quality, Coonrod cannot be regarded as competitive when so much of the opposition is available at mid-price or lower.  If you don’t go for the Brendel in D894, for example, Lupu’s highly recommendable version of D845 and D894 comes at mid-price on Decca 476 2182. 

The Liszt transcriptions of four Lieder are a welcome novelty. Erlkönig is especially effective in this form, since the piano does so much to set the tone of the original.  In the hands of a master, the piano part of this song sends shivers down the spine.  Michael Coonrod does not quite achieve that but he plays all four transcriptions well, with Ave Maria making a fitting conclusion to the first CD. 

The booklet offers a professional CV or résumé of Michael Coonrod together with a two-page general note on Schubert which tells us about his sensitive personality and the debilitating symptoms of his syphilis, but very little about the music.  English translations of the four Liszt-transcribed Schubert Lieder are included but, as these are piano-only performances, we might have been spared these and offered more notes on the music, especially when three of the works here are masterpieces.  Recording details are buried in the biography, with no indication that this is, as I presume, DDD.  Timings for each CD are not given, merely a statement that the set as a whole contains 150 minutes of music, which is true enough as far as it goes.  I have already commented on the lack of a catalogue number on the discs themselves or in the booklet.  The rear cover merely offers the barcode which I have quoted. 

Scores of all the pieces on these CDs are available online, with the usual proviso that these are based on older editions without the benefit of modern scholarship.

I am sorry not to be able to offer a more wholehearted recommendation of this enterprise.  It might have been better had Coonrod confined himself to a single CD of D664 and D894 and some of the shorter pieces.  I should certainly like to hear more from him, perhaps in less hotly-contested repertoire.

Brian Wilson

 

 


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