I was not familiar with Alfredo Perl before
hearing these recordings. The Celestial Harmonies web site claims
that, "For 25 years now Alfredo Perl has been one of the
most influential performers in the field of classical and romantic
piano music." Even though he has made a recording of the
complete Beethoven sonatas his name was not familiar to me. I'll
spare the reader the further dithyrambic praise for Perl found
in his record label's web site, but it's interesting that someone
whose playing has "a clear and beautiful style that is readily
identifiable" should be so little recorded. I wondered if
this recording would correct my ignorance of this pianist.
My first impression as I began listening to this set was one of, "Oh, my, I must turn my stereo down!" From the very first notes of D. 958, Alfredo Perl was banging away at the piano, which was very disconcerting. Sure, Schubert's music is not all velvet and treacle, in spite of what some people say; there is a tremendous mixture of emotion and a wide range of dynamics in these late piano sonatas. But Perl seems to be using hammers on his piano, and this feeling continued throughout D. 958, as his dynamics tend toward the heavy-handed. What makes this more disturbing is that he often has tiny hesitations before crashing his hands down on the keyboard, making them just a micro-second late and reinforcing the ponderous effect. Throughout this performance of the C minor sonata, I was taken by just how much Perl was playing the notes, and not the melodies.
Interestingly, Perl is at his best in the more lyrical passages that don't feature extreme dynamics. The beginning of the beautiful andantino of D. 959 flows from his fingers smoothly and subtly. But as the piece progresses to the louder sections, his playing turns aggressive and unattractive. Granted, this movement does, again, have large shifts in dynamics, but one needs to negotiate them in an overall approach to the music rather than simply playing loud for loudness's sake, which is the impression I get. But in the final movement of this sonata, with fewer loud passages, Perl returns to a charming lyricism.
With all this in mind, I began listening to the D. 960 sonata with some trepidation. First, it's worth noting that Perl's timing for this sonata is on the long end of the scale; of the 13 versions I have of this work, only Mitsuko Uchida plays longer, and that by only 30 seconds. Perl is notably longer in the very long first movement, several minutes longer than Lupu, and much longer than Brendel, who does not play the repeats. Perl's performance here is sensitive and poetic, as though he's not trying to show off as he does in many of the other movements on this set. His use of subtle pauses is interesting; he often lets the music sink in before going on to a new phrase. In spite of my reservations concerning the first two sonatas, I feel that Perl is excellent in this huge first movement of the final sonata. Finally, he’s playing the music and not the notes; it sounds not like he’s playing to impress, but rather because he truly loves this music. The second movement continues the soft, subtle tone of the first, and, again, Perl seems at home here. His phrasing in the second section of the movement may be a bit too choppy and punctuated, but overall, he brings great sensitivity to the piece. In the brief, faster third movement, Perl plays the rapid sections with great aplomb, but the slower parts sound mismatched to the overall movement, as though he were playing a mash-up of two different pieces. The final movement sounds a bit out of place, as Perl returns to his loud dynamics, and plays the opening section with too much hesitation, unclear about what sort of phrasing he wants to use. Later in the movement, Perl, alas, returns to key-banging - not totally unjustified - but the difference in volume between the loud and soft sections is disturbing.
In addition to Perl's heavy-handedness, at least in the first two sonatas, these recordings are strongly skewed toward the lower frequencies, making the listening a somewhat disagreeable experience. I almost never have to adjust the bass or treble settings on my stereo, but here I was tempted to lower the bass, because it was simply overpowering. Part of this might be due to the Bösendorfer Imperial he plays, one with 97 keys instead of the standard 88. It could be sympathetic resonance of the extra nine bass keys that gives this bassier tone, but the engineer should be more careful to avoid letting the excess bass sounds bleed into the recording. One could also argue that this piano is light years away from the type of instrument on which Schubert actually played these sonatas.
I find this set to be a mixed bag. The first two sonatas left me wanting more, but the last sonata, the D 960, is performed, for the most part, with great sensitivity. Other pianists may play all these works with more emotion than Perl, but for at least the D 960 sonata, his recording stands up there with the best.