Schubert’s two sets
(four apiece) of Impromptus are among
his greatest achievements in piano music.
They succeed both as individual ‘stand-alone’
compositions, or as a balanced larger-scale
collection, almost equivalent in scale
and scope to a sonata. Almost, but not
quite, since they do not aim for the
inner cohesiveness the composer so miraculously
created in the three great sonatas of
his final year, 1828.
The mature Schubert
was an extraordinary figure. Untroubled
by the trappings of fame and the expectation
to entertain, he wrote music that in
the fullness of time became central
to the repertory at the same time as
being years ahead of its period. And
nowhere is this phenomenon better expressed
than in these Impromptus, large-scale
masterpieces in a single sweep of inspiration,
establishing their credentials as mood-pieces
in the decade before Chopin.
is a major artist in this music, no
question. The very first chord of the
(first) C minor Impromptu from D899
immediately impresses for its commanding
tone and immediacy of communication.
Of course this is a credit to the Teldec
recording from 1995, which has admirably
atmosphere and clarity. If there is
a criticism of the approach of the whole
enterprise it is that there might be
more warmth of tone and expression.
But that is slightly unfair, because
these things can be matters of artistic
judgement, and there is more than one
way to perform great music.
Virtuosity is evident
at every stage, but always in the service
of the music. The clarity of inner textural
detail is a particular strength (leading
perhaps to the comments above), and
the more outwardly rhythmic music, such
as the E flat and A flat pieces from
D899, really gain in this regard.
Each listener will
respond to Schubert’s mastery, and with
further acquaintance will probably prefer
either the complete sequence or the
‘one at a time’ approach. For there
is no one way. In preferring the latter
in Leonskaja’s care, I would say that
it helps to accentuate her attention
to detail by concentrating on just one
Impromptu at a time. There might be
more poetry in this music in the performances
of, say, Murray Perahia or Andras Schiff,
but Leonskaja is an artist of the front
rank and her interpretations have their
own validity and abundant strengths.