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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Four Impromptus, D899
Four Impromptus, D935
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Rec. November 1995 (D899), April 1996 (D935), Teldec Studio, Berlin
WARNER APEX 2564 61140 2 [70.28]

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.

Elisabeth Leonskaja 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.

Terry Barfoot

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