Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Drei Klavierstücke, D 946 (1828) [21:20]
Allegretto, D 915 (1827) [4:29]
Vier Impromptus, D 935 (1828) [32:12]
Zwölf Valses Nobles, D 969 (1827) [9:03]
William Youn (piano)
rec. February 2011, Immanuelskirche Wuppertal
ARS PRODUKTION 38093 [67:34]

Young prizewinning South Korean pianist William Youn is a new name to me, but this is his third release from the Ars label. The others were the two Chopin piano concertos and a Chopin/Schumann/Wolf recital.

Youn makes a beautiful sound on the Steinway used for this recording, and everything in the garden is very rosy from beginning to end. He can bring out much of the drama in the music, as well as creating perfect lyrical lines and weighing Schubert’s harmonies with gorgeous dynamic shaping and shading. The SACD sound is of demonstration quality, the piano sounding natural in a rich but not over-resonant church acoustic, not too close for comfort and not too distant for detail.

Such a fine piano disc is a delight for the ear, and I would gladly leave further comments aside – I don’t really want to criticise such a fine production, but I can’t help feeling there’s something missing here. Schubert’s great piano works have of course been recorded by countless great pianists, and with the Vier Impromptus, D 935 as one of the main pieces in this programme I turned to Radu Lupu to try and work out the source of my niggling unrest.

Yes, Youn’s playing is superb, but compared with Lupu he really is skimming the surface with a work such as the Impromptu No.1 f-moll. Lupu’s opening 30 seconds or so hold worlds of potent expression. The opening broken chord is given a touch of extra weight through being held just a fraction longer, the following dotted sequence also sustained, gathering tension which is disarmed by the simple little cadence which is its reply. This drama is quasi-repeated, building further as the curtain-raiser for tunes which aren’t really tunes, a song which could only be expressed on a keyboard with all its arpeggiations and figurations. Youn skates through that introduction, yes – giving us that dynamic development and a certain amount of contrast between thematic elements, but hardly really exploring the expressive potential of the material. Youn doesn’t find angst in Schubert’s subtle changes of harmony, doesn’t show us the innigkeit which the composer is revealing from the deepest of depths. Timings are by no means anything like the whole story, but it is telling that each of Youn’s Impromptus come across the finishing line well before Lupu’s. The second of the set comes across as a fairly innocuous waltz from Youn, where Lupu – barely slower, still generates that sense of tragedy, and really hits us between the eyes with those outbursts of rage and frustration which explode from that most charming of melodies. Youn is too mild at these moments, still creating fine sonorities when the strings of the piano should be screaming for mercy. When Schubert writes ffz he means more than we get here. He also misses out the second repeat in the first section, which you may or may not regard as a criminal offence.

For the Drei Klavierstücke D 946 I happened to have the Brilliant Classics box with Michel Dalberto to hand, which is a very fine set indeed though doesn’t have all the answers. I hate being a member of the repeat-mark police, but here this question does arise – Dalberto putting in pretty much everything, and transforming Youn’s truncated 6:52 into an almost symphonic 13:40 in the first piece in E flat minor by adding in the second repeat in the slow central section. The actual performance points are less clearly delineated here, and Youn’s runs and tremuli are more even that Dalberto’s. The climax at the end of that Andante is where Schubert has his moment for howling at the moon, and Youn’s is arguably the less for having it appear only once, and very much the less for his going all quiet on us at the moment supreme when there is no indication for this in the score – at least, not in the edition I was looking at. The second of these pieces D946 is marked Allegretto, and Michel Dalberto manages to find plenty of expression even at a tempo which moves with a more dance like character than Youn, whose main theme sections sound a bit fat and self-satisfied. Youn misses the second repeat in the first section which to my mind does truncate the flow and spoil the proportion of the piece, though he does keep all of those magical harmonic progressions which arise in the fast central section.

I won’t carry on with points of interpretation, but I hope you get the idea. William Youn’s technique is superlative, and less critical listeners can ignore my pickiness, bathe in his wonderful sound and enjoy some of the best music written for piano in the 18th century at the same time in the full spectrum and 3D acoustic of a marvelous 5.1 multichannel recording. I do not want to give the idea that I dislike his playing, for this is by no means the case. When however you’ve become used to hearing so much more in Schubert’s piano music it’s hard to revert and accept less, no matter how wonderfully produced or performed it may be. Youn can and does create many magical moments, and makes it possible to forget you are listening to a piano at times, such is the enveloping quality of the sound he conjures. I fear however, that these performances will not be entering the pantheon of the truly greats.

Dominy Clements

Beautiful sound, but depth of sonority isn’t everything.