Franz SCHUBERT (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D.960 (1828) [41:55]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano transcriptions of songs by Schubert
Der Müller und der bach [5:01]
Sei mir gegrüsst [4:12]
Frühlingsglaube [3:29]
Auf dem Wasser zu singen [4:44]
Rian de Waal (piano)
rec. 22 December 2010, ‘De Concertboerderij’, Valthermond, The Netherlands
I didn’t know him at all personally, but Rian de Waal is still greatly missed as a colleague at my place of work at The Hague’s Royal Conservatoire. He passed away on 25 May 2011 and I signed the memorial book, but am now rather pleased to be able to pay a slightly more substantial tribute by way of reviewing his last recording, which also happens to be of Schubert’s final great piano sonata D.960.
When you open the gatefold of this nicely and simply presented CD you are met by De Waal’s bold statement, Take your time with Schubert. The Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D.960 is certainly a work to which this proclamation is applicable, with that vast first movement which De Waal brings in at twenty minutes almost to the second, and the timeless Andante sostenuto, in which the world can seem to stop spinning on its axis, or at the very least slow down for a better look at how things are. Valery Afanassiev is slower and gazes closer to infinity in his recording on the ECM label, but his view for that live Lockenhaus performance is an extreme which I will accept goes beyond what many might find acceptable. De Waal keeps hold of the singing line, and holds that balance between turning the accompaniment figures into repetitive features which end up disturbing a meditation, and making those rhythms into more of a funeral march than they should be. It could have been a tad slower for me, but that’s personal taste; the proportions between the opening and close and the more animated central section seems perfect.
This animated character relates directly to the Scherzo in this interpretation, something I hadn’t picked up on so much in the past. Balance, poise, call it what you will but this is tremendously well considered playing, with accents and harmonic nuances placed to perfection. The final Allegro ma non troppo forms a unifying and consolatory movement in this interpretation, until the minor turbulence kicks in at 2:23 and the rug is pulled out from under our feet. This may not be the wildest of performances but packs a punch at all of the significant points, building to passages of symphonic stature in the fourth minute. The penultimate bars before the final coda are played with genuine poignancy, a really regretful departure.
Rian de Waal’s own booklet notes tell of how, when Schubert was all but forgotten, it was Franz Liszt’s performances of song transcriptions in Vienna which revived interest in his work. You can hear why this would have been the case with these performances, which bring out both Schubert’s disarming and deceptively simple melodic lines as well as the easy technical grace with which Liszt supplemented the originals to create satisfyingly stand-alone pianistic works.
Daan van Aalst’s excellent SACD recording made at Rian de Waal’s own recording location, a converted farm in Valthermond, deserves a mention here. Another colleague in The Hague, he is also responsible for some crack engineering on releases with Rachel Podger and others, and his work here creates a warmly expressive piano sound - colourful and responsive, and with a good impression of the scale of the location. Amongst the finest legacies a musician can hope to leave are recordings which will stand as a testament for the future, and this Schubert, Schubert/Liszt programme is one of the finest piano performances I’ve come across for many a year. This has nothing to do with sentimental association or the awareness that people I know are likely to read my review - I’ll stand by my comments in any arena.
I will also stand by my opinion that the perfect recording of Schubert’s last sonata has yet to be made, and probably never will be. If I have any reservations about this particular recording it is the sense of neatness, of things being put right, or being placed in their correct places and order in the world. This does wonders for the structure of the work as a whole, and reinforces the value of the final two movements against the sheer unfathomable genius of the first two. I realise I haven’t mentioned the opening Molto moderato a great deal, and the reason is that there is very little to fault in Rian de Waal’s interpretation or performance. He is two minutes shorter than Afanassiev, but around two minutes longer than Radu Lupu in his Decca recording, which is not a particular favourite but which does point out a sense of real and present danger which can be expressed in this music. What I miss here is Schubert’s human fallibility and his voice of bloody-minded defiance. You may or may not accept visionary qualities in this work, but these can be as much in the ear of the beholder as that of the performer. This marvellous performance is of Schubert the controlled master craftsman, rather than Franz the uncertain genius and secret hell-raiser.
Dominy Clements
A unique and valuable testament.