Franz SCHUBERT (1797Ė1828)
Piano Sonata No. 4 in a minor, D537 (1817) [21:15]
Piano Sonata No. 13 in A, D664 (1819) [19:34]
Fantasy in C, D760, Wandererfantasie (1822) [21:26]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK, 24-25 October, 2009. DDD.
NAXOS 8.572459 [62:15]

This recital begins with two of Schubertís early piano sonatas composed in 1817 and 1819, and concludes with one of his greatest masterworks, the Fantasy in C major D760 known as the Wanderer. Eldar Nebolsin sets a powerful and tragic tone at the outset of the A minor sonata, with its rhythmically tight descending minor scale motif. Schubertís expressive markings are meticulously observed; there is plenty of light and shade where needed, and Nebolsin produces some lovely tone in the more lyrical passages. In the second movement he makes a convincing contrast between the lyrical beauty of the right hand melody and the staccato quaver accompaniment. Nebolsin always varies the repeats in this variation form movement with subtle changes in rubato and dynamics. In the final third movement, with its dramatic opening, we return to more energetic music in which Nebolsin excels.

The Sonata in A major, D664, composed about two years later, is in a totally different mood. The gentle opening melody is appropriately played in a simple and unfussy way. Further on Nebolsin is well able to portray the more agitated and dramatic parts of the movement. Following the flying octaves in the development section, he makes a beautiful return to the workís opening theme at the beginning of the recapitulation. The ensuing andante movement is sensitively played and in the final allegro Nebolsin makes convincing contrast between the virtuosic sections and the movementís more lyrical moments.

The Wanderer Fantasy of 1822 is a work which, not only formally, but in pianistic terms too, looks forward to future developments in nineteenth century music, perhaps more so than any other. With its four joined sections and use of an all-pervading motif, it is the forerunner of the symphonic poem of Liszt, the ideť-fixe of Berlioz and the leitmotif of Wagner. The virtuosity required to play this work, including pounding octave passages, anticipates the pianistic terrors of Lisztís writing for piano later in the century.

The piano is indeed made to sound like an orchestra, and the opening bars resonate with great power in Nebolsinís hands. Maybe when this motif is repeated and developed from bar 15 where it is marked to be played very softly, a more subtle difference in mood and colour could have been forthcoming. Brendel (Philips 420 644-2) captures this change beautifully by playing the opening motif a fraction quicker and lighter than Nebolsin, so that his pianissimo together with a gentle slowing down, is more sensitive and telling. Pollini (DG Classics 447 451-2, with Schumann Fantasie, Op.17) is also more subtle here and in similar passages.

The important transition into the ensuing adagio section of the work is also subtly and movingly presented by Brendel. Nebolsin begins just a fraction too loudly compared with the final chords of the first section, making this sound too obviously like a new movement. However Nebolsinís performance is superb, full of sad pathos where needed as well as glittering demisemiquavers and menacing tremolandi. The third and fourth sections are powerful, explosive and energetic where necessary, but perhaps a bit too much like Liszt for some tastes. Brendel is rather more poetic and imaginative in the cantabile melodic passages, with rubato that allows for more subtlety and a greater sense of spaciousness in the phrasing. Pollini also gives a truly great performance of this work.

Eldar Nebolsin gives first class performances of the Wanderer Fantasy and the two sonatas, and I would highly recommend this disc especially at budget price. However, for truly great playing I would choose Brendel or Pollini.

Geoffrey Molyneux

Brian Wilson has also listened to this recording:

I passed this recording on for three reasons: first because Geoff Molyneux (hereafter GM) has the scores and can actually play these pieces himself, secondly because I thought the performances of the sonatas a little penny-plain, and thirdly because I wondered if this version of the Wanderer Fantasy wasnít just a trifle too tame.

My reservations about the sonatas disappeared on second hearing, which serves as a reminder that first impressions are not always accurate. We may bemoan the loss of the facility that most record shops used to provide a chance of hearing a recording before purchase, but I now wonder how many records I dismissed after one hearing that would have grown on me. What I at first interpreted as reticence in Nebolsinís account of D537 I now hear as a combination of Schubertís failure at this early stage fully to emerge from the shadow of Mozart and (especially) Beethoven and the pianistís sensitivity to this transitional style.

Once one has heard the last three sonatas, especially D960, itís all too easy to dismiss Schubertís earlier works for the piano as Ďcrude to ears familiar with the fine texture of nineteenth-century pianist-composersí, especially as ĎBeethoven placed a heavy responsibility upon any composer who wished to write ĎSonataí at the top of his paper.í [Hutchings A, The Master Musicians: Schubert (London: Dent, 1949, 1979), p.143] Putting D960 aside, D537 and, even more, D664, emerge from these sensitive performances as attractive works.

Nevertheless, the Wanderer Fantasy rises from the gap at the end of D644 sounding like a work of a very different order. Like GM, my chief comparison for the Wanderer has been with the 1972 Brendel recording, coupled with an equally marvellous performance of the wonderful B-flat Sonata, D960, on Philips 420 6442 Ė well worth seeking out second-hand, since itís no longer available separately. The digital remake coupling these two works (422 0622) is also no longer available as a single CD, though it can be downloaded from passionato.com Ė here.

I must also admit to liking Lisztís arrangement for piano and orchestra of the Wanderer in the performance by Jorge Bolet, currently available in a bargain 9-CD set of Boletís Liszt (467 8012) or on a 2-CD Double Decca with Julius Katchenís recordings of the Piano Concertos (458 3612). Indeed, I suspect that if I kept score I should find myself reaching for the more exciting Liszt arrangement more often than the original.

As I have to put recollections of the late sonatas aside, then, so with the Wanderer itís necessary to forget Lisztís arrangement. Iíve already said that the work arises from the end of D644 as music of a very different kind, something which would not have been possible if Nebolsinís performance had truly been as understated as I first thought it to be. I shall certainly not be pensioning Brendel off, especially as his recording comes with a version of D960 to rival that of Clifford Curzon, but I shall be returning to Nebolsin at least from time to time as a reminder that there are other ways of playing this work. Those who accuse Brendel of agogic distortion in Schubert Ė pulling the music about too much Ė will probably prefer Nebolsinís more straightforward approach.

GM also mentions the merits of Polliniís Wanderer Fantasy, a version which I havenít yet encountered. Thatís available for download from passionato.com in mp3 and lossless versions Ė here. As they also offer the digital Brendel (see above) and the Liszt arrangement, that sounds like an idea for a forthcoming version of my bi-monthly Download Roundup.

Brian Wilson

Well worth considering, especially at the price.