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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonatas – Complete Recording
Disc 1 [74:09]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, D.557 (1817)
Piano Sonata in E minor, D.566 (1817)
Piano Sonata in B major, D.575 (1817)
Piano Sonata in A major, D.664 (1819)
Disc 2
[72:49]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D.845 (1825)
Piano Sonata in D major, D.850 (1825)
Disc 3 [78:29]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D.537 (1817)
Piano Sonata in E flat major, D.568 (1817)
Piano Sonata In C major D.840 ‘Reliquie’ (1828)
Disc 4 [74:22]
Piano Sonata in F minor, D.625 (1818)
Piano Sonata in A minor, D.784 (1823)
Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958 (1828)
Disc 5 [76:56]
Piano Sonata in E major, D.157 (1815)
Piano Sonata in C major, D.279 (1815)
Piano Sonata in G major, D.894 (1826)
Disc 6 [78:06]
Piano Sonata in A major, D.959 (1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D.960 (1828)
Michael Endres (piano)
rec. WDR Funkhaus, Saal 2. Köln. December 1993-January 1995
CAPRICCIO 49 456 [74:09 + 72:49 + 78:29 + 74:22 + 76:56 + 78:06]


Roll up, roll up! This box reminds me of one of those market stall salesmen: ‘Look at this, six CDs, a complete set of Schubert sonatas, well reviewed by some of the most respected names in the business. What do you think it’s worth, £30? I’m not even going to sell it to you for £25 ladies and gentlemen, how about £20 ? Six CDs – for just £20…’ Before you know it, they are going like hot cakes over the counter, and quite rightly so.
 
Either that, or there’s something wrong. Well, there is nothing amiss with the recordings. Clear and resonant, the piano is a nice sounding instrument, full of character, singing treble and weighty bass. The booklet notes are straightforwardly informative, and the whole production has a general air of good quality. All of the CDs here have been released previously, and have been generally well received in reviews. The only real difference I can see with this set is that the CDs have been numbered 1-6 on the booklets. Looking at some other ‘complete’ editions I do however find that Capriccio have been a bit naughty. Where, for example, is the Piano Sonata in E major, D.459, or the Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, D.570/571, or the Piano Sonata in C major, D.613, and even the Sonata Movement, D.665. Not complete then, but that’s not what the salesman said: he was selling ‘a complete set’ not a set of ‘the complete sonatas.’ On the box it says ‘Piano Sonatas, Complete recording’ so Capriccio is covered as well – it’s Endres’ complete recordings, not necessarily the complete sonatas (see review of Brilliant boxset of sonatas - also Bargain of the Month). You really have to listen carefully!
 
Leaving aside the price and programming issues, there is a great deal of stiff competition with Schubert sonatas. With Kempff, Brendel, Schiff and Uchida just for a start, Michael Endres is swimming in deep waters. Safe, faultless technique has been a minimum requirement for a long time now, and you can rest assured that Michael Endres has technical assurance in abundance. We can argue long and hard about what strange chemistry blends composer and musician into some kind of unity, able to speak to an audience and carry them through the undulating moods and unfolding narrative of a piece; leaving them enriched and uplifted by the end of it. Does Endres have this elusive quality?
 
Let me say from the outset that I’ve been enjoying this set a great deal. Endres’ approach is uncomplicated but certainly by no means shallow. D.625 has all the delicate lyricism and dramatic contrasts you could want, D.784 begins secretively and opens out with orchestral fervour, the beautiful Andante wanting a little more time and space for its full impact, but still nicely performed. Then there’s the ‘ugly duckling’ of D.840, the ‘Reliquie’ Sonata whose two movements seem to divide players in the strangest ways. Brendel in his recent live release manages to create moods both mysterious and lyrical, building to climaxes that seem to want to make the piano burst. Uchida, my principal reference, is over two minutes longer than Endres in this Moderato, but is not being fussily precious – keeping a solid momentum while at the same time seeming to carve Schubert’s musical path through granite-hard or silkily smooth pianistic rites of passage. Endres is unsentimental, faithful to the score, and sensitive to the song-like passages that provide the contrast to all that repetitive bridgework.
 
I think this aspect of Endres’ approach to Schubert is one of the ones I most appreciate in this set. Many years ago I was a passenger with some other students in Louis Andriessen’s car on the way to Amsterdam - we were always on the way to Amsterdam – all roads seemed to lead there at that time. Some ‘classical’ chamber music was being performed on the radio, and, while none of us - not even Louis - knew exactly what piece or composer it was, we worked out - and were later proved correct - that it was almost certainly Schubert. We did this not by any expert analysis of musical fingerprints, but by the reverential way the musicians approached their performance.
 
Michael Endres has none of this extra, unnecessary layer of artificial gloss over his playing. I’m being horribly selective here, but even where his timing is longer than Uchida in the second Andante movement of D.894 his approach never abandons the logical linking of lyrical lines, allowing Schubert’s musical narrative to unfold in all simplicity, while highlighting expressive moments with subtle and appropriate rubati. Uchida opens with similar frankness, if allowing more dynamic range in her more overtly ‘artistic’ approach. She wins time by pushing ahead more in the dramatic forte passages, and turning back to Endres at these moments he does seem a little pedantic, determined at all cost to keep the tempo constant.
 
Jumping ahead (as most listeners will) to the final Sonatas I find Endres only just missing that last measure of weight which make the difference between a ‘great’ performance and a ‘truly great’ one. D.958 is attractively played, but in summing up I find myself gasping for just a little more air between the musical paragraphs – all except for the last Allegro, which is a carnival of delight. Not always, but often enough, you find your expectation of the perfect moment for a new entry being anticipated by just a fraction. This will only be enough to cause disquiet if you are more in agreement with the likes of Brendel and Uchida, and here we are in the area of taste and subjective opinion – with my hand on my heart I can’t say he is ‘worse than’, just ‘different to.’ With the last two sonatas the comparisons become a little easier to define. His opening of D.959 has the energy and sense of purpose that drive all of these recordings, but compare with Uchida and you will be confronted with the difference between, say, the concert hall in the Barbican Centre or the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam - to which all roads lead. In its own terms, the one is excellent enough, with many positive features. It’s only when you make direct comparisons that the reasons for choosing the latter become apparent. With Endres we get Schubert presented in a nicely pure and unadorned fashion, acceptable in every respect. He is in every way consistent as well. Taking the second Andantino movement of D.959 his approach is sensitively lyrical, with the accompaniment given the lightest of touch – a lovely performance. Listening to Uchida by comparison and you might find her having gone too far in the other direction, loading the music with a slower tempo and implied emotional associations which some might argue simply aren’t there. Uchida is in turn being consistent to her view of Schubert’s late masterpieces, and the central – emotionally charged section of this movement emerges like a volcano pushing its way through the ocean to create a new land. Endres’ moment of turmoil is more like the storm scene in a ‘Pastoral’ piece of some kind, something that Schubert might have been more likely to recognise as his own creation. It carries less overt profundity, but any judgement here again has to be subjective, and I find it hard to choose outright.
 
The Rondo: Allegretto theme provides the answer in the end. Endres is to my ears just a little too brisk, cramping the expansive nature of that wonderful tune. Uchida paces it beautifully, and becomes my desert island choice at this stage.
 
The Sonata in B flat D.960 has for me become a sort of Holy Grail in the piano repertoire, and with any number of versions rattling around in my head Endres was always going to have a hard time. In fact I quite like his playing here. He has a way of bringing out the inner voices that won me over quite quickly, despite remaining unconvinced by his rather muddy low trill in the exposition. Uchida’s piano sound is disappointingly woolly despite being a fine performance, and while my favourite Afanassiev on ECM is wonderfully atmospheric, I’m grown-up enough to recognise that its unique qualities are sometimes way off centre. No, Endres has some powerful moments of contrast and drama throughout the whole of that incredible first movement, and I doff my pearly cap with respect. His Andante isn’t quite sostenuto enough for me, but his quicksilver touch suits the Scherzo well, and the opening of the final Allegro ma non troppo has that ironic sense of joy and wit which confounds the gloom of the first two movements just the way it should.
 
I have enjoyed this box and, despite my hesitation in placing it in the very top drawer as regards Schubert recordings, would recommend anyone with a spare few quid to get their copy while they can. These are performances that eschew artificiality, histrionics, eccentricity or misplaced reverence. As recordings they are possibly a little on the dry side, but have a clean, accurate piano sound which serves the music well. With every CD at well over 70 minutes I shall hear no moaning in terms of value, but if only it had been a 7 CD set with all of the sonatas: I could even have re-opened my market stall.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 



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