Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) The Last Three Piano Sonatas
Sonata in C minor, D958 [31:12]
Sonata in A major, D959 [39:54]
Sonata in B flat major, D960 [47:12]
Allegretto in C minor, D915 [5:15]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 5 May 2010, Meany Theater, Seattle, USA
ROMÉO RECORDS 7283-4 [71:06 + 47:12]
Some time ago I had the good fortune to review
Craig Sheppard’s splendid cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas.
Since then, some more of his recordings have been favourably
received here by colleagues, all of them, like the Beethoven
sonatas, recorded live in recital at the Meany Theater in Seattle.
I so admired Sheppard’s Beethoven that when the chance presented
itself to review these performances of the last three Schubert
piano sonatas I needed no second bidding.
These sonatas were all written in fairly quick succession in
the last few months of Schubert’s life - between May and September
1828. To produce three such substantial masterpieces in such
a short period of time is impressive enough as an achievement.
But if you add in firstly the fact that he was mortally ill
– he would be dead by mid-November – and, secondly, that in
the last year of his life he produced a whole succession of
other major works, including the String Quintet, the songs subsequently
published as Schwanengesang, and the Mass in E flat then
one can only marvel at his industry and invention.
The sonatas in question form, by pretty common consent, the
pinnacle of Schubert’s portfolio of solo piano compositions.
Indeed, they are among the peaks of the piano repertoire as
a whole and, like the Ninth Symphony, suggest ways in which
Schubert might have advanced the genre still further, not least
in terms of expansiveness, had he lived longer. One important
thing about them is that, notwithstanding the fact that they
were composed not long before Schubert’s death, they are not,
I believe, in any sense valedictory and woe betide any pianist
who treats them as such and attempts to wrap the music in an
autumnal cloak of farewell or regret. Happily, Craig Sheppard
is far too intelligent and perceptive an artist to fall into
that particular trap.
Sheppard’s Beethoven sonata recordings were issued under the
title Beethoven: AJourney. I was reminded of
that listening to these Schubert performances because hearing
them as a series – and knowing that this is how they were presented
to the audience in Seattle – allows one to appreciate how the
music in each tends to feed off the others – a point that the
pianist makes in his very good booklet note.
It seems to me that Sheppard has the full measure of these scores.
He is excellent in the turbulent passages that feature particularly
in D958 – but also in the other two works – and in such sections
one appreciates the physical strength of his technique – and
that he never forces the tone of his Hamburg Steinway piano.
Rhythms are unfailingly executed crisply and accurately but,
crucially, Sheppard is a discerning master of rubato. Schubert’s
music so often requires just a little ‘give’ to make its expressive
point, though this is down to the pianist’s intuition since
it’s not written in the score. Sheppard consistently gets this
aspect just right.
It’s the heavenly lyricism of Schubert’s late music that gives
it such appeal. Mr Sheppard never overdoes the lyricism, making
it maudlin; instead he lets the music breathe and sing, allowing
it to unfold naturally. Thus, the serene theme of the Adagio
movement in D958 is perfectly enunciated, with every chord or
single note beautifully and thoughtfully weighted. In this movement
Sheppard’s playing has great poise yet the occasional passages
of more robust music are strongly projected.
The Andantino of D959 is a wonderful creation. Craig Sheppard
refers to the “forlornness” of this music and this is how it
comes across in his hands. The simplicity of his playing at
the start allows the writing to speak most effectively. There
is a strong and dramatic central section (3:08–5:00), which
is projected powerfully. It provides a fine contrast with the
preceding, withdrawn episode and when the subdued music returns
for the closing section of the movement the fact that it follows
this turbulent central passage gives the slow passages an added
sadness. The finale of D959 is Schubert at his most winning
and I really admired the lyrical grace that Sheppard brings
to this music. His playing is full of light and shade, ensuring
that his reading is a conspicuous success. Earlier, he’d been
equally successful with the seemingly endless tarantella that
forms the finale of D958. It seems to me that he judges the
pacing here to perfection, giving the music sufficient space
that it doesn’t sound unduly rushed yet, at the same time, imparting
plenty of energy and momentum.
The performance of D960 is masterly. In the extended opening
movement - 19:13 here – Sheppard is suitably reflective yet
his pacing is just right – a consistent feature of all these
performances – and so the music isn’t allowed to dawdle. I thought
this was a wise and completely convincing reading of this heavenly
movement. The Andante sostenuto that follows is otherworldly;
time seems to be suspended in a good performance and this is
a very good performance. Sheppard distils great atmosphere
– surely a benefit of live recording - and displays expert control
and a great feeling for the music. When, at 5:58, the opening
material is reprised, his subtle touch is very special. I relished
the delicacy of his fingering in the third movement while his
description of the finale as “nonchalant and elegant” is highly
appropriate. I’d hesitate to call his playing of it nonchalant
for fear that might imply a superficiality, which certainly
is not the case, though the playing is relaxed. But I’ll readily
describe his pianism in this mainly genial movement as elegant.
The little C minor Allegretto is a good and thoughtful choice
as an encore.
Textually, the performances are based on Martino Tirimo’s Wiener
Urtext edition as well as the Henle and Peters
editions. All repeats are observed.
The performances were given before a live audience but I should
reassure readers that this audience, unlike some I have endured
recently at concerts, is commendably silent and attentive; one
senses that Sheppard held them in the palm of his hand and willed
them to focus on Schubert. Even when listening through headphones
I couldn’t detect any extraneous noises and there is a most
welcome absence of coughs. Those for whom it is an issue ought
to note that there is applause at the end of each work – and
it’s quite vociferous – but I don’t find that a problem.
These are exceptionally fine and satisfying Schubert performances,
which I have enjoyed greatly – and savoured. Sheppard is a perceptive
and intelligent guide to these masterpieces and his playing
and interpretations bespeak a deeply musical and thoughtful
approach. I hope that others will enjoy these discs as much
as I have done. Like his Beethoven sonatas, these are performances
to live with. I see from the booklet that Sheppard’s recording
of the complete solo piano music of Brahms is in the offing,
again drawn from live recitals in Seattle. That is eagerly awaited.
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