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
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
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.