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SCHUBERT - The Complete Finished Sonatas for Piano    John Damgaard (piano)   ClassicO CLASSCD 245-49 (five disc set)

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Schubert's piano sonatas are still rarely encountered in the concert hall, despite pioneering work by such eminent pianists as Alfred Brendel, András Schiff and John Damgaard's teacher, Wilhelm Kempff. Yet, for anyone who responds to the late Schubert symphonies or the inspiration of his songs, the late string quartets and above all, the great String Quintet, there will be much to enjoy in the piano sonatas. Indeed, there are treasures in these sonatas to equal if not surpass those of his other late works. This magnificently played 5-CD set of the completed piano sonatas from ClassicO is an excellent opportunity to hear the true genius of Schubert captured in performances of great poetic intensity married to a formidable technique.

The sonatas are distinguished by intensely beautiful song-like melodies and also a surprising quirkiness rarely found in Mozart and Beethoven. For example, an extraordinary low trill in the left hand punctuates the sublime hymn-like first subject of the opening Molto moderato of the very last sonata (D960) and there is an amazingly violent outburst at the centre of the Andantino of the Sonata in A D959 which all but destroys the other-worldly serenity of its opening gently rocking theme. John Damgaard emphasises the pioneering side of these works and does not shy away from underlining their more eccentric twists and turns. He brings a clear-sighted approach which does not preclude refinement or intellectual rigour but which achieves that most difficult of tasks: appearing to allow the music to play itself without interpretative intrusions.

Undoubtedly Schubert's piano sonatas have suffered from being composed under the shadow of Beethoven yet it is remarkable how little of these pieces remind the listener of the older composer's works in this genre. Indeed, there are many extraordinary passages in the Schubert sonatas which seem to anticipate later composers: in the Sonata in A minor D845 (1825), the start of the Development section of the opening Moderato could almost have come out of Grieg's Peer Gynt, whilst the first variation of the following Andante, poco mosso is very Chopinesque, as is the Mazurka-like Menuetto in the E flat Sonata D568. The stormy outburst in the A major sonata D959 looks forward to Liszt whilst the second subject of the closing Rondo from D845 has a touch of Paganini (as rhapsodised by Rachmaninov) about it.

The thought-provoking programme notes by Jens Østergaard include the comment that Schubert's original treatment of time in his sonatas "not only justifies but even asks for repeats". How sadly ironic then, that John Damgaard disregards all exposition repeats and even the first-time repeat in the Scherzo of the D major sonata D850. It is to be regretted that the repeats are not observed but the soloist shapes his expositions accordingly so that in most cases no serious damage is done. The exception is the D major sonata D850 where, by ignoring the repeat in the opening Allegro vivace, John Damgaard makes it nearly half the length of the following Con Moto movement, thus rendering the sonata as a whole frustratingly misshapen and eccentric. Otherwise, I have no complaints at all in what are arguably the most consistently fine performances of Schubert sonatas to have emerged since Brendel's latest thoughts on the works recorded in the late 1980s appeared on Philips. Time and again I was moved by the sheer beauty of Damgaard's playing. There is no greater tribute to him than if I say it was not long before I forgot I was listening to "performances" and began to enjoy the unique genius of Schubert: his astonishing ability to write memorable tunes and to confound the listener's expectations (something in which he is almost a match for Haydn).

Look to Brendel for even greater poetry (especially in the last magnificent triumvirate D958-D960), Clifford Curzon for more delicacy and András Schiff for deeper intellectual probing but John Damgaard has brought his own set of insights, a magisterial control and refinement in his playing and a remarkably consistent view to these works. In his hands, the whole set is strikingly homogenous and the quality of Schubert's writing appears all the more unwavering. The recording is exemplary: clear without being clinical and emphasising the remarkable dynamic and expressive range Damagaard has at his command. Very highly recommended for the unaccountably neglected but infinitely rewarding repertoire as much as the beautiful and intensely idiomatic performances.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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