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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960
Wanderer Fantasy in C major, D760
Gretchen am Spinnrad, D118 (trans. Liszt)
Erlkönig, D328 (trans. Liszt)
Olga Filatova, piano
Recorded July 2002, Thürmersaal, Bochum, Germany
THOROFON CTH 2475 [66.42]

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Strange things, record collections. When I listened to this performance of Gretchen am Spinnrad I seemed to miss the breathless, feverish quality of Gretchen’s amorous dreams, at least as reflected in the way her fingers moved about her spinning wheel. So I decided to listen to the song itself, and was surprised to find – more than surprised, actually – that I don’t have a recorded performance of it. I began to look further, and found that the setting of Der Wanderer on which Schubert based his Fantasy doesn’t feature among the 294 lieder I have on disc either. I suppose one has heard these pieces enough times in recital or on the radio – especially Gretchen – to be able to say that one "knows" them, but they do represent fairly basic gaps in a collection, especially when you bear in mind (for example) the nineteen versions of Vaughan Williams’ fifth symphony, or those thirteen performances of Das Lied von der Erde. But nothing pleases a collector more than finding a reason to extend, and the order has already been placed to correct this imbalance.

There was no such problem with Erlkönig – I might have been too ashamed to admit it had there been – though I didn’t feel the need to make any comparisons in any case, as Filatova’s performance comes close in terms of tempo to virtually every performance of the song I’ve ever heard. Both songs work well as solo piano pieces, thanks to near-miraculous transcriptions by Liszt, but important elements are missing all the same. Surely one of the most remarkable decisions ever taken by a composer was Schubert’s when he made the evil Erl King speak in the major key. A lesser composer would have chosen the prevailing (and more obvious) minor, but given by a singer with a fine command of vocal colour – Sarah Walker’s extraordinary performance in the Hyperion Complete Edition is unmissable – the moment never fails to make the flesh creep. The effect is completely different in the piano transcription where seductive horror gives way to something resembling light heartedness.

The Wanderer Fantasy is one of the most technically difficult of Schubert’s keyboard works, and Olga Filatova rises well to its demands. Each of its four short movements, which are played without a break, is based on the same musical material. Though superficially it might resemble one of the sonatas, it actually inhabits quite a different world, less reflective, less interested in byways, more purposeful. It requires a different approach from the listener, too, and is not always easy to understand. Filatova’s is a fine performance of the work. There are one or two moments where her way with pulse seems not only a little too free but lacking in spontaneity and therefore at odds with the spirit of the composer. At other times repeated figuration low in the instrument could have been clearer, but though the sound in general is good I wondered if this wasn’t a problem of the recording or the acoustic. What does seem lacking compared to the finest of other performances available is variety of tone colour, especially in louder passages.

The Sonata in B flat D960 was completed sometime during September 1828, six weeks or so before the composer’s death. It was his final work for piano. Like most of his late works its nature is equivocal. It opens with a theme only Schubert could have composed: serene, almost sunny, but whose final bar is a long trill low in the left hand which is then followed by silence, "raising", as Brian Newbould has written, "a profound question." Three times during this long first movement the music almost comes to a standstill, three times it takes off again, the last time bringing the movement to its close with the same theme as the opening. There is little of the drama we would expect from a Beethoven sonata first movement; though the music is for the most part tranquil in nature this is only the surface of an intensely probing and questioning composition. The slow movement is a dark, supremely concentrated essay in left hand ostinato, but the scherzo is as bright and cheerful as any movement in Schubert’s output, covering only two pages of score. The finale is rather dance-like, with a multitude of themes, once again punctuated by moments of silence, and finishing with a short, headlong dash.

Listening to other pianists who have recorded this sonata one is struck by the sheer variety of interpretative possibilities. Some treat it very simply whilst others seem to be searching for mystery or drama; still others are perhaps hoping to express a feeling of summation in this work which was amongst the last music Schubert composed in his tragically short life. Brendel, who has recorded it several times, doesn’t seem to want to impose his own personality on the work, yet his very cerebral and intellectual approach tends to identify him. Stephen Kovacevich would seem to favour a similar view, but the result is very different, as is the remarkable performance by Mitsuko Uchida. Olga Filatova’s performance is very fine too, though the doubts expressed above in respect of the Wanderer Fantasy remain, especially perhaps her way with certain aspects of phrasing, a tendency to insert little halts and stops at the ends of phrases but within the context of a fairly uniform basic pulse. She is extremely good at bringing out the melodic line, as she is at letting us hear from time to time interior voices that we hadn’t known were there. In common with many, perhaps most pianists, she does not play the first movement repeat, and though one can understand this in a movement which already lasts over fourteen minutes, this does mean that we don’t hear nine bars which Schubert composed presumably intending them to be heard. The most successful movement is the scherzo, where Filatova brings the smile of the music to the surface with quite delightful lightness of touch. She is less convincing in the finale, however, her reading less imposing than most of the more illustrious names listed above.

The Schubert Competition for Piano is held every two years in the German town of Dortmund to find "young pianists who possess a special flair for the sensitive world of sound of Schubert’s piano music." Olga Filatova was the winner in 2001, but I think there are more searching performances of the B flat sonata in the catalogue. It is well and thoughtfully played though, even if not a first choice, and the disc will not disappoint collectors exploring this interesting programme.

William Hedley



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