Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete Piano Sonatas, Piano Works
Michel Dalberto (piano)
rec. Salle de Châtonneyre, Corseaux, Switzerland, 1989-1995
complete tracklist at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94093 [14 CDs: 67:11 + 57:29 + 57:38 + 76:39 + 69:35 + 61:59 + 76:18 + 69:51 + 55:17 + 65:05 + 59:22 + 62:37 + 42:47 + 42:53]

Not having heard any of Michel Dalberto’s playing before tackling this mountain of a box set, I did my little bit of online research and read mostly positive things about these recordings in their first appearance on the Denon label. All of these recordings were made in the same location and with a fine sounding Steinway piano, and any variations in recording quality between sessions are quite minor if not entirely absent. This is a set which is notable for its consistency throughout, and from the reassuringly solid notes of the first piece on CD 1, the Sonata in A minor D845 to Schubert’s last great sonata D960 there are hardly any points of negative criticism. This is not to say that the playing is better than all of the other versions of these pieces one can find, but does indicate that, for those wanting a one-stop package for most of Schubert’s entire output for solo piano, this is a pretty good place to be.

In fact, there are relatively few places to find quite as much Schubert in one place, though the sonatas are more often to be found gathered together. My own little stable of references includes the not quite complete set by Mitsuku Uchida on Philips, and the playing of the likes of Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia. Of the sets against which this Brilliant Classic box will have to compete is the attractively priced box on the Capriccio label played by Michael Endres. This is a fine set which will cater for most people’s needs, but my opinion of 2006 remains the same today, and Michel Dalberto’s performances certainly push it that bit further down into a substrata of so-so Schubert. I would also tend to prefer Dalberto’s consistency over the musical baton race which is Brilliant Classics’ own alternative (see review); not that I have this to hand for reference, but having sampled a few of the recordings in the past I know I wasn’t inspired to rush out and acquire a copy.

In the end, it is the inherent qualities of Dalberto’s performances which will win or lose the day, and in my opinion he wins on overall balance, even though taking a hard look at each of the main masterpieces means running the gauntlet of greatness in terms of comparisons. The Moments Musicaux D780 on CD 2 for instance, may not have quite the magic of Alfred Brendel’s analogue recorded Philips performance or Radu Lupu’s for that matter, but you can easily find yourself caught up in the poetic grace of No.2 Andantino and the good natured and dancing wit of No.3 Allegro moderato. Dalberto always gives the impression of playing within himself and isn’t a very ‘risky’ or dangerous sounding performer, but he has a feel for Schubert’s idiom and reaches the heart of the music with directness and disarming clarity. Talking of dancing, these are a few places where I occasionally found myself in mild disagreement with Mr. Dalberto. The Ecossaises D529 for instance are fairly disposable pieces, but there are a few moments where the touch is rather heavier than I thought necessary. It’s sometimes as if Michel Dalberto is playing for actual dancers, and having to beat the notes out louder than usual to keep everyone in step, which is I suppose also a legitimate approach. Elsewhere his touch is usually lighter and more sympathetic. There are little discoveries all over the place in this box, and the Menuett D600 at the end of CD 2 is one such – a strange pizzicato bass and interesting Bach-like progressions and suspensions creating an unexpected effect.

The main work on CD 3 is the incomplete Sonata in C Major, D840. I like Dalberto’s way of threading the disparate elements of the vast opening Moderato movement together, keeping an element of improvisatory surprise. He is less grandly symphonic than Uchida on Philips, but none the worse for that, keeping the huge musical ideas within a realistically chamber-music framework and still managing to stretch the instrument to its limits of dynamic in places, which is also the way things should be. Dalberto maintains a more forward momentum in the following Andante, while keeping the sense of enigmatic mystery intact. Uchida almost goes into reverse in terms of tempo in this movement, and even with her alchemic touch I prefer the unity and sense of displaced logic which Dalberto conjures – letting Schubert’s ideas speak more for themselves rather than introducing extra layers of artificial wonder and reverence. Michel Dalberto also gives us what Schubert completed of the third and fourth movements which Uchida does not. There is some cracking music in these remnants, but you can almost sense Schubert’s impatience with his sketches – life just too short to perfect or work out all of those ideas to completion. There are other delightful ‘out-takes’ on this disc, like the Ecossaise D156 which someone could work up into a decent pop number.

With Radu Lupu as my reference, the 4 Impromptus D899 bear up well under scrutiny. Dalberto has a good sense of melody, and his lyrical lines sing out with expressive clarity. He is perhaps a touch less sweeping in the diving lines of No.2, but the rippling accompaniment for No.3 is done with a kind of restless alertness which I found quite refreshing, taking nothing away from the beauty of the lyrical line. Dalberto’s subtlety and lightness of touch is also apparent in No.4, the ‘raindrop’ right hand nicely balanced, ringing and present but with a fine sense of horizontal movement. The structure of these pieces is also a strong aspect in these recordings, with no doubts about which direction Schubert is moving, the harmonic wrong-footing moments of genius having all the more impact as a result. This story continues with the Impromptus D935 on CD 6, and I have absolutely no complaints with Dalberto while still wanting to hang grimly on to my copy of Murray Perahia’s playing of these pieces on my old CBS LP copy, now to be found on the Sony label. The real magic is of course with Schubert’s composition, and Michel Dalberto brings out all of the fine qualities in this music. The sense of poignant regret in No.1 might come through stronger elsewhere, perhaps the almost religious amores of No.2 a tad warmer, but left on a desert island with only these recordings and I would certainly have enough to be going on with.

The core and backbone of any such a Schubert survey has to rest on the sonatas, and I’m glad to say that some of Michel Dalberto’s most powerful performances are to be found in these incredible pieces. The darkly funereal splendour of the Sonata in A minor D784 suits Dalberto well, and he reaches deep into the strings of the piano to transport us into places at once heavenly and unsettling in the opening Allegro giusto. The acidic dissonances of the central Andante are given new life in this performance, and the slow emotional roller-coaster ride on which Schubert takes us is quite hard to bear. The stained-glass beauty of the Sonata in A major D664 contrasts well with the A minor D784, and Dalberto does nothing to torture or distort Schubert’s melodic charm in the first movement Allegro moderato. This is in fact a very lovely reading indeed, challenging Radu Lupu, whose faster tempo is not necessarily always an advantage. The central Andante is like a prayer in music, and Dalberto treats it as such – perhaps as a chorale to unrequited romance, the same lover taken to an imaginary ballroom for the dance of a lifetime in the final Allegro. This is a recording to challenge all comers, and one of the highlights of this set.

Dalberto’s Wandererfantasie is very good indeed, full of dramatic contrast, and not allowing technical bravura to take over from Schubert’s message. The excitement in the Allegro con fuoco non troppo is in the storms generated by the composer’s vivid narrative imagination: while the pianist by no means takes a back seat nor does he create unnecessary layers by adding pretentious pyrotechnics. The Adagio is particularly impressive, almost Wagnerian in its forward-looking sonorities and emotional span. I also like the bounce Dalberto gives to the counterpoint of the final Allegro, which lifts it beyond grim determination into something deeply rooted but also highly entertaining and uplifting. The Sonata in D major D850 is another key work, and comparing Dalberto with Uchida I have to admit his clarity delivers a more visceral experience in the first movement’s Allegro, the little details – runs and built-in ornaments, all add up to something which takes on quite a life of its own. Uchida is good too, but the more distant perspective and aura of resonance hides some of this all important detail. Dalberto is less legato in the strangely broken lyricism of the Con moto second movement, bringing out the explorative nature of Schubert’s progressions. I also like the sharpness of rhythm he finds in the Scherzo, accenting and separating the chords to create a whippy, agile texture.

Glossing over vast areas of marvellous music and musicianship is not my intention here, but there is just too much to cover in one review. Rest assured that there are jewels to be found, and any favourites I’ll have missed all receive excellent performances in this set. I’ve had these recordings playing regularly for quite a while now, and there were no moments at which I looked up from whatever I was doing with negative thoughts about what I was hearing. Lumping the three last great sonatas D958, D959 and D960 together also seems a bit much, but for me the idea of a ‘best’ performance in these pieces has become something of a crock at the end of an all too elusive rainbow. If you’re a real Schubert fan you’ll probably have more than one recording of these pieces knocking around somewhere, and the one you bring out is the one which you think will suit your mood of that particular moment. Murray Perahia is decent enough in his 2 CD Sony recording, but less inspired than you might expect. Apart from his D960 which I feel is overrated, Radu Lupu’s recordings are currently the ones I’ll go for if I want the total immersion experience. I used to like Uchida more than I do now, and while her recordings are very atmospheric and the performances very good there are a few quirks I find I’ve never become entirely reconciled with, or indeed find I have lost patience with altogether.

Michel Dalberto delivers performances of high quality for these last three sonatas, and they are by no means substandard in comparison to the rest of the set. He could perhaps have been a little more elegant in the third movement Menuetto of D958, and maybe he tries just a little too hard with the first movement of D959, an object lesson in which can be found in Alfred Brendel’s live recording. The stark simplicity of the Andantino movement in this sonata is painted with striking abstract strokes by Dalberto however. While he is never less than entirely involving and stimulating to the senses, I do wish he’d kept more of the lied quality in the final Rondo movement – some of his articulations are just a little too picky for their own good. The Sonata in B-flat Major, D960 is one of the greatest pieces ever written for the piano or any other instrument for that matter, and I still feel the definitive recording has yet to be made, and perhaps never will or ever should be. Like trying to find the actual origins and boundaries of the universe, perhaps this is a piece we can only aspire to ‘finding’ or perfecting. Michel Dalberto does a very good job indeed, bringing out the massive dynamic contrasts and timeless depths of the opening Molto moderato, giving those bizarre low trills plenty of space and allowing them to resolve properly rather than fade into mush. I like his Andante sostenuto second movement, which suggests infinite slowness while actually being at a quite respectable tempo. The Scherzo is full of life and energy while maintaining that essential sense of lonely isolation – a quality in which it could vanish in a whiff of smoke at a moment’s notice. Not everyone will like the stresses Dalberto introduces in the second section at 1:53, but this is another element in a voyage of discovery with this piece and something on which to ponder. He does something clever with half-pedalling or some such technique with those funny suspended notes in the opening of the last movement. This is Dalberto’s interesting solution to Schubert’s ‘impossible’ fp marking for these notes and with most pianists giving up any hope of achieving such an effect you’ll either love or hate it. I admire the attempt, but ultimately find this more of a distraction than a solution to what in the end is a somewhat academic problem: like crescendo markings on a single note it’s more often than not only elbow action or other non-CD communicable visual effects which work on your modern Steinway.

Presentation is good for this box, with useful essays in the booklet and full track listings on each cardbard sleeve for the discs. The only minor error I came accross was on CD 1, the Valses Sentimentales Op. 50 marked D770 instead of the correct D779. To conclude, this is a valuable set which deserves plenty of attention. As a single resource for Schubert’s sonatas and other piano works it is hard to beat, though individual pieces will of course reward further exploration by different interpreters. Seasoned Schubertians probably won’t find their favourites too threatened, but Dalberto frequently shows us things we hadn’t noticed before. The greatest of works of this kind are like good sculpture: they respond differently to light, changes in setting, and one’s own willingness to look beyond the surface into the complex depths of structure and tension beneath. Michel Dalberto has looked deeper than many into the soul of Schubert, and at his best his playing the equal of all comers. This and the myriad other little discoveries to be made throughout this box make it well worth the asking price.

Dominy Clements

Well worth the asking price.

Complete tracklist
CD 1
Sonata in A Minor, Op. 42 D845 (1825) [36:38]
Sonata in E major, D157 (1815) [20:40]
Valses Sentimentales Op. 50 D779 (c.1823) [9:47]
Walzer in A flat major, D978 (ca1825) [1:05]
CD 2
Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 D780 (1823-28) [27:48]
Sonata for Piano in A minor, Op. post. 164 D537 (1817) [21:38]
8 Ecossaises D529 (1817) [3:06]
Menuett in C sharp minor, D600 (ca1814) + Trio in E major, D610 (1818) [5:45]
CD 3
Sonata in C Major, D840 (Reliquie) (1825) [37:33]
10 Variations in F major, D156 (1815) [13:31]
Ecossaise in D minor/F major, D158 (1815) [0:17]
Andante in C major, D29 (1812) [3:51]
2 Deutsche, D841 (1825) [1:54]
Walzer in G major, D844 (“Albumblatt”) (1825) [0:55]
CD 4
Sonata in G Major, Op. 78 D894 (Fantasie - Sonate) (1826) [40:56]
12 Waltzer (Valses Nobles) Op. 77 D969 (1826) [12:58]
Waltzer in F major, D979 (ca1826) [0:42]
2 Waltzer, D980 [1:39]
Sonata in C major, D279 (1815) [16:54]
Allegretto in C major, D346 (?1816) [4:19]
CD 5
4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D899 (1828) [27:58]
Sonata in E major, D459 (Fünf Klavierstücke) (1816) [28:17]
3 Menuette mit je zwei Trios, D380 (1816) [8:26]
Allegretto in C minor, D915 (1827) [5:35]
CD 6
4 Impromptus, Op. 142, D935 (1828) [36:59]
Sonata in A-flat major, D557 (1817) [10:52]
13 Variations on a theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner in A minor, D576 (1817) [14:38]
CD 7
Sonata for Piano in A Minor, D784, Op. 143 (1823) [24:46]
12 Deutsche, D790, Op. 171 (1823) [11:33]
Sonata for Piano in E minor, D566 (1817) [27:42]
2 Scherzi, D593 (1817) [9:29]
11 Ecossaisen, D781 (1823) [4:01]
Ecossaise in D major, D782 (ca1823) [0:22]
CD 8
Sonata in B Major, D575, Op. 147 (1817) [25:08]
Adagio in G Major D178 (1815) [6:43]
6 Ecossaisen, D421 (1816) [1:58]
Cotillon in E flat major, D976 (ca1825) [0:37]
Sonata in A major, D664 (1819) [25:18]
From Originaltänze, D365, Op. 9 (1816-21) [10:29]
CD 9
Fantasie in C Major, D760, Op. 15 Wandererfantasie (1822) [22:43]
16 Deutsche und 2 Ecossaisen, D783, Op. 33 (1823-24) [11:25]
Kupelwieser-Walzer Anh 1-14 (1826) [1:21]
Sonata in C Major, D613 (1818) [15:50]
Marsch in E Major, D606 (?1818) [4:24]
CD 10
Sonata in F Minor, D625 (1818) [22:13]
Galopp und 8 Ecossaisen D735 (ca1822) [4:05]
Sonata in D Major, D850, Op. 53 (1825) [39:17]
CD 11
Ungarische Melodie in B Minor, D817 (1824) [3:19]
Sonata in F-sharp minor (1817) [19:08]
Drei Deutsche Tänze, D971 (ca1822) [2:35]
Variationa über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli, D718 (1821) [1:28]
Sonata in E-flat major, Op. post. 122, D568 (1817) [33:42]
CD 12
3 Klavierstücke, D946 [31:13]
Sonata in C minor, D958 Op. posth. (1828) [32:01]
CD 13
Sonata in A Major, D959 (1828) [42:37]
CD 14
Sonata in B-flat Major, D960 (1828) [42:53]
Michel Dalberto (piano)
rec. Salle de Châtonneyre, Corseaux, Switzerland, 1989-1995
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94093 [14 CDs: 67:11 + 57:29 + 57:38 + 76:39 + 69:35 + 61:59 + 76:18 + 69:51 + 55:17 + 65:05 + 59:22 + 62:37 + 42:47 + 42:53]