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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH



Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete Piano Sonatas; Impromptus; Moments Musicaux
Disc 1

Piano Sonata in B flat major, D.960
Piano Sonata in B major, D.575

Lebensstürme’ in A minor, for piano duet
Klara Würtz (piano) with Pieter van Winkel (duet) [78.08]
Disc 2

Piano Sonata in A major, D.959
Piano Sonata in E minor, D.566

Frank van de Laar (piano) [70.42]
Disc 3

Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958
6 Moments Musicaux D.780

Folke Nauta (piano) [61.01]
Disc 4

Piano Sonata in D major, D.850 ‘Gasteiner’
Piano Sonata In C major D.840 ‘Relique’
Piano Sonata in A flat najor, D.557

Frank van de Laar (piano) [79.54]
Disc 5

Piano Sonata in A minor, D.784
Piano Sonata in G major, D.894

David Kuyken (piano) [62.15]
Disc 6

Piano Sonata in A minor, D.537
Piano Sonata in A major, D.664
Drei Klavierstücke D.946

Klara Würtz (piano), Pieter van Winkel (piano – Drei Klavierstücke) [77.19]
Disc 7

Piano Sonata in A minor, D.845
Piano Sonata in E major, D.459

Bart van Oort (fortepiano) [66.10]
Disc 8

Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, D.570/571
Piano Sonata in C major, D.613
Piano Sonata in F minor, D.625
Sonata Movement, D.665
Ungarische Melodie D.817
Zwei Scherzi, D.593

Alwin Bär (piano) [71.36]
Disc 9

Piano Sonata in E major, D.157
Piano Sonata in C major, D.279
Piano Sonata in E flat major, D.568
Fantasie in C minor, D.2e
Allegretto in C minor, D.915
Scherzo in B flat major, D.593

Tamara Rumiantsev (piano) [76.51]
Disc 10

Four Impromptus, Op.90
Four Impromptus Op.142

Martijn van den Hoek (piano) [66.24]
Disc 11

‘Wanderer’ Fantasy in C major, D.760
German Dances

Martin van den Hoek (piano) [72.11]
All discs recorded at the Remonstrantse Gemeente Devente, Netherlands between April and December 2000
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99798

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Rather than a box of recordings licensed from other labels and re-released in super-budget format, this set of the complete Schubert Sonatas (plus extras) has been specially recorded for the label. Instead of one pianist traversing the whole lot, the decision was made to share the works among a number of artists, almost all under forty and based in the Netherlands. On the whole, I think this was a wise move, as it spreads the artistic vision, and almost certainly stops any one pianist’s mannerisms from filtering into every performance. The same venue, and what sounds like the same beautifully regulated piano, are used throughout, and the engineers have created a very uniform ambience for every disc. So, at super-budget price you can have modern digital recordings of all Schubert’s important output for solo piano. The question is how does it stand up against the formidable competition? There are at least three excellent sets of the sonatas at mid-price, from Andras Schiff (Decca -7 discs), Wilhelm Kempff (DG – 7 discs) and Martino Tirimo, whose digital 8 disc survey on EMI Eminence includes his own scholarly and convincing completions for the problematic unfinished works. Add to this numerous individual discs from leading Schubertians such as Uchida, Pollini, Brendel, Lupu, Curzon, Kovacevich and Imogen Cooper, and the ‘unknowns’ from Brilliant Classics have a tough job on their hands. As is often becoming the case with this company, there is much to recommend it as a good starting point for the new (or financially challenged) collector. Some performances I found as good as any I’ve heard, others a little matter-of-fact, but overall, and at the phenomenally low price, it’s hard not to recommend it.

Disc 1

One of the more experienced international artists on the set, Klara Würtz, opens proceedings with the greatest of all the sonatas, D.960. Consequently, she is up against the toughest competition by some margin. Her rendition is certainly thoughtful, though her slow basic pulse for the first movement means that she finds it hard to sustain interest. Richter often played this movement at this speed (or even slower), but had the personality and magnetism to bring it off. Here, things get just a little tedious. Also, I find it highly irritating that she phrases the second subject so quirkily – the tune is in F sharp major and in the left hand, so it sounds bizarre to me to highlight top line of the right hand, which is simply descant harmony. Andras Schiff also does this, but makes it more subtle and graded, and his quicker pulse helps propel the music forward without losing poetry or detail. Würtz’s scherzo is less than sparkling (try Pollini here – wonderful), and the finale a little plodding. Her performance of the B major D.575 is much more successful. Here, a gently rhapsodic approach makes the music come alive, and she finds plenty of wit and sparkle where required, the scherzo (or is it Minuet and Trio?) being a good example. Rhythmically, she is more convincing in this finale than the B flat, and seems to find the right Allegro giusto tempo. She is joined by Pieter van Winkel for the ‘Lebensstürme’ duet, which dates from Schubert’s last year (the title is the publisher Diabelli’s). This is marvellously subtle music, with a wide range of emotion, and it finds these artists on good form. This is an enjoyable version, with virtuosity and nobility in equal measure.

Disc 2

Frank van de Laar is one of the youngest pianists on the set, and is not afraid to take risks. The opening of his A major has an imperious quality that is impressive, with beautifully judged phrasing and tightly controlled technique. Attention to detail is admirable, and the many hairpin dynamics are all scrupulously observed without sounding pedantic. The long last movement, a typically Schubertian Sonata-Rondo, is well brought off, with the repetitive material subtly varied to give contrast. His D.566 is no less impressive. This sonata is basically a two-movement torso, one of the ‘problem’ sonatas. Laar plays the material for all it’s worth, and includes the disputed third movement, which was published as late as 1928 but appears in the urtext edition.

Disc 3

This is the only disc to feature the youngest of all the pianists here, Folke Nauta, who is just 29. He certainly has a huge dynamic range, and gives the piano a real thrashing in the stormy opening of the C minor D.958. He may well have been inspired by Pollini’s steel-fingered account on DG, a version with which this compares quite favourably. If you like your Schubert less dreamy, or with more overt passion and boldness, this playing will suit you. Nauta’s headstrong finale may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying its effectiveness in making sense of the long, repetitive paragraphs. Unfortunately, his boldness of expression carries over to the famous Moments Musicaux, which lack any sort of charm or magic; the tone here sounds forced, with ugly fortissimos, and is no match for Lupu or Perahia.

Disc 4

This again features Frank van de Laar, and is broadly similar to his other disc in pianistic approach. The big D major, D.850, conceived in the spa town of Bad Gastein (hence the name), is one of Schubert’s longest and most virtuosic piano pieces. Laar obviously relishes the challenge, taking us through the many key modulations and shifts of emphasis with mastery. The folkish scherzo has a buoyancy and rhythmic lilt that seem entirely appropriate. The naivete of the A flat, D.557 is conveyed without playing down the poetic nature of much of the material, though scholars argue as to whether this is the final form as Schubert intended it. The oddly named ‘Relique’ is also more or less a two-movement torso, with much of the material being high quality Schubert. The first movement’s leisurely unfolding finds this artist enjoying the long spans without hurrying, and the small silences in the lovely little andante second movement have a yearning nostalgia that is moving.

Disc 5

This disc features the only appearance by a pianist I had heard of, David Kuyken, a very able musician well versed in chamber music. These are two of the best performances on the set, with playing of great nuance and refinement. The famous G major, D.894, can live with the best. I was able to do comparisons with Uchida and Brendel, and did not find Kuyken wanting in poetry or vision. This music sounds simple but is exceptionally difficult to bring off. The weighting of the opening chords (Schubert surely inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto?) shows Kuyken’s sensitive touch at its best, and he illuminates many phrases with great insight. The smaller A minor sonata is not as profound musically, but has many beauties that are teased out by Kuyken. The compact andante is played with a simple charm which would have benefited the Moment Musicaux – it’s a pity these were not entrusted to Kuyken.

Disc 6

Klara Würtz is again featured in two of Schubert’s earlier but hugely enjoyable sonatas. D 537 dates from 1817 and is the first of a triumvirate of sonatas in A minor. It is full of invention and daring key modulations, and shows Würtz’s intelligence as a player to greater effect than the first disc. The A major is one of the shortest and simplest of his keyboard works, but has many enjoyable moments, all enjoyed to the full by this artist. Her previous duet partner, Pieter van Winkel, gets a chance to shine in the wonderful Drei Klavierstücke, written only months before Schubert’s death. Their many serene and poetic phrases are well despatched by Winkel, who does not play to the gallery or inflate the music – simplicity of utterance is the hallmark here, and it works.

Disc 7

This is something of a curiosity, as it is the only disc on the set that uses a fortepiano. Whilst I have nothing against that (in fact their use is becoming common in Schubert), I’m not sure why these pieces were picked. In the event it’s not a bad idea, though as usual the instrument takes a bit of getting used to – it simply sounds out of tune all the time, and the wonderful falling figuration that opens the A minor suddenly seems to have lost all its sustained poetry. Anyway, how you react to this particular disc will depend on your view on such matters. Bart van Oort’s playing is certainly intelligent and musical, bit I found myself constantly wanting to hear the same performance on the modern grand everyone else uses.

Discs 8 and 9

These two discs do a ‘mopping up’ job of many of the smaller, unfinished or individual pieces. Both pianists are excellent, investing much of what is frankly slight material with great warmth and musicianship. Many of these pieces hark back to Mozart and Haydn, with Schubertian thumbprints shining through in places, points not lost on either Alwin Bär or Tamara Rumiantsev. Where sonatas are incomplete, the solution here is usually a repeat of earlier material to round off, rather than leave it hanging in mid-air or attempt anything more controversial, as Martino Tirimo does on Eminence. Playing safe is no bad thing, especially at super-budget price.

Discs 10 and 11

The last two discs of the set are given over to Schubert’s major keyboard ‘extras’, and are superb in every way. This is the only appearance by Martin van der Hoek. His ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy I found wholly compelling, well up with the competition. There is no lack of poetry or insight, and all this is allied to an excellent technique that is up to the very formidable difficulties. The massive final fugue is beautifully controlled, so that every strand emerges with clarity and precision, though never mechanical coldness. I was reminded of my benchmark, Murray Perahia, more than once, and no praise is higher. The 8 Impromtus are not quite in this league, though very enjoyable. There is a delicacy that is appropriate, though some of the fire and spirit shown in his ‘Wanderer’ could have helped in places to lift the playing and add light and contrast. Still, it’s churlish to complain too loudly, and I am being very critical here, comparing his playing to Lupu and Perahia – praise indeed.

In conclusion, it is only fair to give this big undertaking a very warm welcome. One could easily live without the earlier, slighter or unfinished works, and make up a collection of the best sonatas fairly cheaply from mid and budget discs already in the catalogue. But this set does present the bigger picture, allowing us to hear Schubert’s development as a keyboard composer and put many of the later, greater works into a proper context. At the silly price of around £24.00 (in the UK), you could easily buy this set and supplement it with other performances of your favourites by other artists. You would probably find, as I am doing with repeated acquaintance, that these admirable renditions of some very great music do not disgrace themselves, even in exalted company.

Tony Haywood


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