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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Schubert Recordings - Vol.1
Sonata in B flat major Op. posth, D.960 (1828) [40:01]
Allegretto in C minor, D. 915 (1827) [6:41]
Six Moments Musicaux, Op.94, D.780 (1823-1828) [28:50]
Joshua Pierce (piano)
rec. New York City, 20 July 1996. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS 1204 [75:31]

Joshua Pierce is a talented pianist.  His recordings of contemporary repertoire and light fare have been received with glowing reviews in these pages and elsewhere (see for example review 1 and review 2).  His recent line of romantic period concertante releases on MSR has not been quite so well received, largely as a result of unsatisfactory orchestral accompaniment and intense spotlighting of the piano (see for example review 1, review 2 and review 3).
This disc is the first volume in a projected series of Schubert recordings that, judging by the date of the session documented here, may already be in the can awaiting release.  As Eric Salzman's detailed and entertaining liner notes made clear, this series is not intended to be another that furthers the myth of Schubert as a “sweet, innocent creature out of the operetta Blossom Time … prodigious talent unrecognized”.  For Salzman, and presumably for Pierce, Schubert was the darling of the empire’s bohemians, brimming with absolute confidence that he and he alone could take Beethoven’s place as Vienna’s pre-eminent composer.
Pierce’s performances of Schubert’s music seem to reflect this viewpoint.  He is a knowing guide to the B flat major sonata rather than a wide-eyed innocent like Christian Zacharias, whose gorgeous performance of D.960 is a firm favourite of mine (it is now available in a ridiculously cheap 5 disc set of Schubert's sonatas from EMI France 7297214 3675452, and in EMI’s 50 disc Schubert Box).  Pierce’s approach is rhetorical, constantly questioning and probing.  This can be disconcerting, and I am not convinced by his rubato in the first movement, which sounds a touch mannered with Pierce stretching note lengths and highlighting the bass register rumblings.  Once past the initial point-making, his performance begins to flow more naturally. 
He finds power and lyricism side by side in a fluent reading of the andante, which does not linger as much as may be expected after the rhetoric of the first movement.  The scherzo is bright and breezy, but becomes strangely blocky in the central modulation before the first subject returns in a new key of C sharp (as opposed to B flat) major.  The finale makes a strong impression, but the articulation feels exaggerated in places and the overall arc of the movement is not maintained, so that the final bars when they arrive do not feel inevitable. 
If you are looking for a new recording of the B flat major sonata there are a couple of relatively recent releases that would rank ahead of this one.  Leon Fleisher's 2004 recording on Two Hands, the album that marked his return to playing with two hands after successful treatment for dystonia, is superb.  With Fleisher there is measured excitement to the scherzo and the finale, but the first two movements are distinguished by an unforced lyricism and a natural rubato.  Fleisher leads the ear through Schubert's paragraphs and although the composer uses relatively thick chords, at no stage does the vertical overwhelm the horizontal in his performance.  One feels that Pierce does not quite manage this, as the key changes and shifts in harmony sometimes seem more important to him than the melodic flow of the music. 
Also worth seeking out is Brendel's live recording from June 1997, recently released on a Philips "Artist's Choice" double (475 7191), together with D.784, D.840, D.894 and D.959.  Under Brendel's experienced fingers the first movement emerges naturally as if in mid phrase, with delicate pianissimo.  His pulse is rock solid beneath the delicacy, though, and his generous rubato has a natural ebb and flow.  There is latent power underneath the singing melody, where Pierce is perhaps more overt and menacing in contrasting lyricism with darker undercurrents.  Brendel's tone is expectedly gorgeous, especially in the andante which here is dark and soulful: when dawn breaks, it does so gently.
Pierce’s performance is not quite the equal of these two, but there are interpretative points of difference that make it worth hearing and Pierce’s skill and polish are never in doubt.
Turning to the couplings, the rare and diminutive Allegretto in C minor is a welcome inclusion and is played contemplatively by Pierce.  As Salzman notes in the booklet, this piece is a seventh Moment Musicaux in all but name.  The ghost of Beethoven hovers low over this emotional little piece, as Schubert refracts into C minor thematic references to the menuetto of Beethoven’s sonata in D major Op.10 No.3, and makes more general use of Beethoven’s doleful expressive devices.
There is a deliberate confidence to Pierce’s performances of the Moments Musicaux proper, with pathos beneath the beauty and dark colours very much to the fore, not only in the minor key trio of numbers 3 to 5, but also in his rhetorical performance of the final piece.  Though Pierce is a little arch in the third piece of the series, on the whole this is impressive Schubert playing, with judicious pedalling, vivid contrast in tone colour, finely tuned dynamic control and a natural rubato that was missing in places from Pierce’s recording of the sonata.
The recorded sound is sympathetically warm, but not over reverberant.
Slight reservations about the sonata aside, this is a disc worth hearing, and taster of what may prove to be a valuable Schubert series.
Tim Perry


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