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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Last Sonatas
Piano Sonata No.20 in A, D959 (1828) [36:25]
Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat, D960 (1828) [42:28]
David Levine (piano)
rec. 1992. Location not stated. DDD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS VIRGO 699538-2 [79:03]
Experience Classicsonline

Schubert’s last two Piano Sonatas are among the greatest works of the piano literature, though it’s surely an exaggeration to claim, as the anonymous notes to this reissue do, that ‘Schubert is the last great composer whose output reserves an honoured place for the piano sonata.’ Chopin and Liszt might have chosen to dispute that statement, whatever it means.

On the face of it, a generously-filled CD coupling these works at a reasonable price (around £6 in the UK) ought to find a ready niche in the market. In the event, however, I was left feeling unenthusiastic without being able to put a firm finger on the problem. These performances are unexceptional and mostly well recorded, so where does the problem lie?

This is not only great music, it’s also a hotly contested segment of the repertoire. I’d just been listening to and greatly enjoying Imogen Cooper’s recording of D959, coupled with D845, D850, etc., a BBC live recording issued on Avie (AV2156, 2 CDs - see August, 2009, Download Roundup) when I received this Virgin reissue. Her version of D959 begins in a slightly matter-of-fact way but very soon develops into an excellent performance to rival established versions by the likes of Brendel and Schiff. Her performance of D960 has yet to appear on CD but I’m very much looking forward to it, as possibly rivalling even Clifford Curzon’s classic account.

I felt that Cooper diminished the opening movement of D959 by not taking the repeat, thereby reducing it to 13:44 against Schiff’s weightier 16:20, yet Brendel, who also omits the repeat on his ADD recording of the last sonatas, is even faster at 12:30 without seeming to diminish the power of the music. Levine also takes 12:30 over the movement but here, I fear, all comparison with Brendel ends. There’s nothing wrong with the playing - every note is in place - and I’d probably be more than pleased at hearing this account in a concert or on a broadcast, but we need something special if it’s to compete with the recordings which I’ve mentioned.

If Cooper begins by sounding a little ordinary, Levine does so throughout the movement; one admires the playing, but one isn’t really moved by it. That remains the case throughout the recording; even occasional attempts to ‘lean’ on the rhythm fail to achieve the desired effect.

Until Imogen Cooper’s companion performance of D960 is released, to match her D959, my recommendation for Schubert’s last three Piano Sonatas has to remain with Brendel (Philips Duo 438 703-2 or the later live recordings on 475 7191) or Schiff (Double Decca 475 184-2), all 2-CD sets available for around £9, making them slightly less expensive per disc than this Virgin reissue.

My best recommendation, however, saved till last, is currently unavailable on CD. Clifford Curzon’s performance of D960 is magic from start to finish, excelling even Brendel and Schiff. The 4-CD limited edition (Decca 475 0842, Decca Recordings, Volume 2: 1941-1972) seems no longer to be available, but it can be downloaded from passionato.com in very acceptable mp3 sound, better than I remember the LP sounding. You can buy the Sonata alone for £6.19 but the set also contains plenty of other tempting goodies for £31.99, including what is still my favourite version of the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Play Levine’s account of D960; you’ll often be moved, especially at the opening of the first movement and in the andante sostenuto slow movement, and you’ll feel at the end that you’ve been listening to a very fine piece of music. You may wonder if it’s really necessary, however, for the pianist sometimes to sound as if he has almost fallen asleep in order to achieve his effect.

Curzon plays very softly at the start of the first movement, but he never overdoes it and the music is very soon allowed to come to life. With Schubert pathos and the affirmation of life are never far apart and Curzon brings this out to the full. Even allowing for the fact that Curzon omits the repeat, he brings this movement more fully to life than Levine.

The same is true in the slow movement, which Levine drags out by comparison with Curzon. When he brings the music back to life, he does so without the enthusiasm of Curzon. Schiff and Brendel bring off a tempo a shade faster still than Curzon’s for this andante sostenuto, but all three are in the same ball-park: not too dreamy but fully aware of the music’s affective power. Jonathan Woolf rightly spoke of Curzon’s ‘magnificently realised slow movement’ - see review. With all three, but most of all with Curzon, the final impression is of having listened not just to the fine music with which Levine presents us, but to a masterpiece with the life-enhancing qualities of which Dominy Clements wrote in describing Brendel’s live Schubert recordings - see review. The Curzon is in urgent need of reinstatement.

Levine’s lively accounts of the final two movements of D960 can’t outweigh those earlier problems.

The Virgin recording is good apart from a very clangorous opening of D959, after which matters rapidly improve. I’m not at all sure what the cover of this reissue is meant to illustrate; I am sure that half a page of notes in French and a similar amount in English is just not enough for the beginners at whom this inexpensive Virgin Virgo series is presumably aimed. All in all, then, this reissue is not a disaster, but it just fails to hit the spot.

Brian Wilson
 


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