Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie C-Dur / Fantasy in C op. 15 D760 (Wanderer Fantasie) (1822) [21:12]
4 Impromptus op. posth. 142 D935 (1827) [32:30]
4 Impromptus op. 90 D899 [23:58]
Viviana Sofronitsky (fortepiano)
rec. July 2010, Tibor Varga Studio, Sion/Switzerland
C AVI-MUSIC 8553250 [77:40]

I greatly enjoyed Viviana Sofronitsky’s Mozart piano concertos (see review), and still dip into it on a fairly regular basis – always a positive sign that good first impressions have held up over the longer term. This Schubert recording uses an instrument by the same maker, with a fortepiano modelled on one by Conrad Graf (1819) built by Paul MacNulty. The remarkable variety of colours and textures available from this instrument is fully explored by Sofronitsky in the Wanderer Fantasie. From it she coaxes exquisitely delicate music-box soft moments, muffled tones and the kind of sharply observed dynamic drama which can become a little monotonous on a modern piano.
Melvyn Tan set the standard for fortepiano recordings in past decades, and his Virgin Veritas two disc survey of Schubert’s music, which includes the Impromptus D935 and D899, is still very much worth having. The EMI recording is a little gentler than the Avi-Music balance, with more distance between the listener and the instrument. Tan is more romantic in approach, allowing for more rubato and sustain where Sofronitsky is more direct. The first Impromptu D899 is a typical example, in which the articulation of the notes seems as important as the shaping of melodic lines and phrases to Sofronitsky. This is a challenge in its own right: who can we say is more accurate? Do we allow for more generosity of romantic spirit in music which still feels the pull of Mozart, or do we emphasise the classical in music which expresses emotion in the deepest ways available to but stretching the style and idiom of the day. Sofronitsky by no means plays without expression, but her articulation is more angular than most versions you will probably have heard until now. I could accuse her second Impromptu D899 of being too choppy and vertical sounding. Indeed there are passages where the repetitions seem to stack up rather than moving the musical narrative along. That said, the contrast of touch and the dramatic world created also have plenty to offer. The singing melody of the third Impromptu D899 provides an illusion of a sustained line on any piano. Sofronitsky carefully and effectively paces the movement so that this works as well as possible. Even so, the balance of melody is a mote too weak against the myriad accompanying notes though still sweeping along with fine and at times touching character. The last of the D 899 set is rather magical in its opening and closing bars, the lightness of touch – I take it with soft pedal – creating an ethereal atmosphere you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else, certainly not with Tan. The music comes into focus and advances as the effect is lifted, and the progression into the minor key is all the more dramatic for this extra layer of colouration.
The comments for D899 apply to a large extent also to the Impromptus D935. Sofronitsky obtains the maximum effect from the instrument. There are many aspects of these pieces which one can discover anew when hearing it on a fortepiano as opposed to a modern concert grand. You can tell the shading of light and dark in the first of the D935 set is exactly the effect Schubert would have had in mind, though the almost skipping tempo with which the second piece opens may or may not have been what he had in mind. Sofronitsky connects this with the dance rhythms which are the origins of the work. He seeks depth of expression in its brilliant contrasts of tonality and dynamic, rather than exploring artificial profundity in languor of tempo. The disarming melody of the third in this set is perhaps presented a little too heavily for my taste, though there is a marvel of difference in some of the variations which follow. The closing dance of no. 4 is lively and full of surprises.
Saving the best until last, it is the Wanderer Fantasie which impresses me most on this recording. Viviana Sofronitsky’s performance is one which fascinates at all levels. The anticipation of hearing how certain passages will sound on the MacNulty instrument is always rewarded with refreshing and unusual sonorities and tremendous inventiveness. Being a huge fan of Schubert’s piano sonatas and lieder I’ve been less keen on this work in general, but hearing the way it can sound on fortepiano and played so expertly has revived my interest more than somewhat. Schubert’s melodramatic writing makes absolute sense with this instrument, and the at times almost orchestral sounds which emanate clearly show how Schubert anticipates later generations and names such as Wagner, Berlioz and Liszt in his exploratory harmonic relationships and thematic developments. The difference between a pp and f or ff isn’t just soft or loud here, and the change in colour and texture between different moments is hard to describe in words. Take the bass line from 1:51 to 2:10 in the second movement Adagio, which has a driven, vocal quality as the dynamic increases. I find the personality which emerges from this kind of effect quite bewitching, and the entire piece comes alive in this version.
This recording probably won’t substitute your favourite concert grand performances, but if you still perceive listening to the fortepiano as a kind of hair-shirt experience then this disc should make you think again, though it does require decent equipment to bring the best of the subtleties of colour to the fore.
Dominy Clements

Worth it for a staggering ‘Wanderer Fantasie’.