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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata No. 46 in E major, Hob. XVI: 31 (1776)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata No. 17 in D major, D850 (1825)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Variations and fugue on a theme of Handel, Op. 24 (1861)
Bernard Roberts, piano
Recorded at the Third Chethamís International Summer School and Festival for Pianists, August 29, 2003
DUNELM RECORDS DRD0212 [79:56]

 

This new Dunelm recording documents a recital given by Bernard Roberts at the 2003 Chethamís Summer School, and I am very pleasantly surprised. My previous exposure to Roberts had been solely through his studio recordings of Beethoven and Bach on the Nimbus label. Although always tasteful and enjoyable, I found his performances a little lacking in incisiveness and reluctant to explore highly meaningful levels of emotional content.

The Bernard Roberts we hear performing in front of a live audience at Chethamís Festival is far more adventurous, demonstrative, and sharper than in his studio efforts. These qualities are most evident in his performance of Schubertís Sonata in D major. Roberts does not give us a flowery and singing Schubert, but an aggressive and impetuous composer unsure of his emotional compass. The performance is the opposite of Wilhelm Kempffís on Deutsche Grammophon that emphasizes Schubertís singing lines and tender refrains at every turn.

Roberts doesnít even allow Schubertís aria-like melodies to shine through in the 2nd Movement Andante con moto, as he conveys a constant regimen of clipped notes. Ultimately, this interesting performance of the D major does not do justice to Schubertís humanity and ranks lower than the Kempff as well as most other fine versions including the ones from Michael Endres on Capriccio and Anthony Goldstone on The Divine Art.

Roberts fares much better in Haydnís Sonata in E major. He captures all the musicís wit, energy, ceremony, and sparkle. However, I would have preferred that Roberts play one of Haydnís more mature piano sonatas invested with the strong degree of improvisation and rhetorical bent so prevalent in Haydnís best piano works.

The prime reason to acquire the Roberts recital disc is his performance of the Variations and fugue on a theme by Handel. This work along with Bachís Goldberg Variations and Beethovenís Diabelli Variations are the supreme variation works for piano in the classical music repertoire. The Brahms is based on the Air from Handelís Harpsichord Suite in B flat. Handel gave us his theme and five variations, and Brahms expanded the scope by composing twenty-five variations and a concluding fugue. The work encompasses a rich and varied emotional palette using a wide range of architectural styles. It is immediately appealing and only grows in stature on repeated hearings.

Bernard Roberts offers a stunning achievement of the Handel Variations that equals or exceeds my favored versions including the Leon Fleisher on Sony and Julius Katchen on Decca. In the opening Aria Roberts establishes a regal atmosphere, and his staccato is delicious. The good cheer and rhythmic bounce of Variation 1 are fully realized, and Roberts beautifully captures the subtle urges and voice interaction of Variation 2. He is enticingly playful with his hesitations in Variation 3, and Variation 4 finds him demonstratively rhetorical with a compelling rhythmic swing. In Variation 5, Roberts takes us into a dream state of ripe emotions just waiting to burst out; this ripening takes on a more desperate and darker veneer in Variation 6.

I love how Roberts plays the perky Variation 10 with an exuberance and lift second to no other recorded version. Variations 11 and 12 are gorgeous creations of subtle intensity, and Robertsís poignant inflections ensure heart-felt interpretations. In the majestic Variation 13, Roberts conveys a spellbinding tension to the rumbling bass and ascending lines. When itís time to go to the races in Variation 14 and the stern Variation 15, Roberts is fast out of the gate and appropriately powerful.

Not wishing to be repetitive in my praise, Iíll move up to Variations 23-25 that take us from notes sneaking around in the shadows to great rolls of sound capped off by a celebratory flourish. Roberts is feeling strong in these three variations and is absolutely exhilarating.

The concluding Fugue is not an easy piece to put across in a coherent manner. In most recorded versions, the regimen ends up sounding like a series of disconnected episodes, but Roberts connects every strand and phrase with his best interpretation on the program. He makes this reviewer feel that the Ďmissing pagesí have all been returned. Further, the blend of stern and sublimely lyrical music is intoxicating. The Fugue alone is worth the price of the disc.

The only quibble I have with the performance of the Handel Variations is that Roberts could have been more massive and stern in a few of the most powerful variations such as the granite-like Variation No. 9 and the heroically ascending Variation 20.

Bernard Roberts is not a virtuoso, and he smudges some lines and misses notes during his recital. However, these types of blemishes are typical in live performance and more than offset by Robertsís idiomatic interpretations. The soundstage is on the dry side with some congestion in the loudest passages, but detail is excellent with a fine degree of resonance.

In conclusion, the Roberts recital disc is essential for loyal fans of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Roberts enthusiasts must also hear this disc; they will be stunned by the differences from his studio efforts. For others, I give the recording a mild recommendation given that the Schubert is a bit wayward and the sound quality is not exceptional.

Don Satz



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