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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Moments musicaux D 780 (Op. 94) [30:01]
Sonata in D Major D 850 (op. 53) [40:53]
Valery Afanassiev (piano)
rec. September 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2215 [70:54]

Experience Classicsonline



Love or loathe it, Valery Afanassiev’s remarkable recording from the 1986 Lockenhaus Festival of Schubert’s Sonata D 960 to be found on ECM New Series 1682 is one of those piano events which is hard to forget once experienced in full. Afanassiev recorded Schubert again for the Denon label in the 1990s, but these studio recordings never came close to capturing the live fervour of that ECM D 960. This duality of expectation made me enthusiastic to hear this Moments musicaux and Sonata D 850, but not without a little trepidation as to what I might find.
 
As the ECM blurb points out, these two Schubert opuses are relatively extrovert works, though as Radu Lupu shows, the Moments musicaux are also filled with poetry and eloquence of expression. Afanassiev lays the episodic nature of the C major opener rather bare, allowing the music to speak for itself but not giving the piece the same sense of natural flow which Lupu manages to introduce, while at the same time portraying individual character in each element. With rich piano tone and a fine touch, Afanassiev’s approach is one you can grow to appreciate, but might seem a little less than warm and welcoming to start with. The magnificent A-flat major movement is initially given fine expression and shape in this recording, though there are some accents which jump out rather than being prepared as you might expect. The broken-chord accompaniment from 1:34 is presented rather strangely, with the bass note separated and a distinct lack of pedaling. If you are used to Lupu this will seem rather willfully ascetic, though the singing line of the melody takes on a different kind of life in this context, and the drama of this material’s development later on reveals something of Afanassiev’s logic here.
 
The dance of the F minor movement is less typically bouncy than in many performances and about half the tempo of Lupu. Once accustomed to the slow tempo one can hear where Afanassiev is giving us an interesting view of this piece, but it will be another ‘love or loathe’ moment for many. The C-sharp minor movement is carefully etched and with plenty of inner detail, and it is only with the F minor Allegro Vivace that the promise of extrovert music making is delivered. The poignancy of the final A-flat major Allegretto is subsumed in a lack of breath between the phrases, and while the music has a fine atmosphere the whole thing could do with being less compressed.
 
This is a Moments musicaux which can fascinate, but will I suspect be a frustration to many. I think it’s probably best to ditch preconceptions about how one thinks this music should ‘go’, and seek the inner life which Afanassiev gives the music here. The playing is undoubtedly fine, and I appreciate the new angles we are given on Schubert, but this recording stubbornly refuses to become a favourite and seems to set out with this as one of its principal aims.
 
The Sonata in D Major D 850 is described by Afanassiev in his booklet notes as “an assortment of games played by Schubert and those pianists who condescend to become children again without incurring the wrath of their friends and colleagues.” Valery Afanassiev’s scattergun references and associations with these pieces in the booklet might be helpful in interpreting his interpretations, but are something of a subjective gallimaufry even when presenting potentially relevant quotes and pointing towards historical context. Of the performance, the first movement is rather measured, with more excitement generated by Michel Dalberto, though his is arguably a touch too far in the direction of precipitousness. This slowness is more apparent in the con moto second movement, which is very downbeat. There is more life but not much more drama in the Scherzo, and the playful element in the final Rondo comes across well, though this is one of Schubert’s movements I would challenge anyone to play and not make it sound playful.
 
I am reluctant to give Afanassiev’s Sonata D 850 short shrift, but the conclusion has to be the same as with the Moments musicaux. This is an approach which I am glad to say brings new points of view interest to works which run the risk of standardised performance based on received views of practice current or past. One thing of which you cannot accuse Valery Afanassiev is following trends or taking easy options. The problem is that, rather than taking up a position of significance in their own right these performances rather inspire me to return to ones which I know have given me satisfaction in the past, or which have inspired more recently. Paul Lewis falls into this latter camp, and it just so happens that his Moments musicaux on Harmonia Mundi HMC 902136.37 have already tickled my fancy as well.
 
Beautifully recorded and certainly stimulating in terms of interpretative controversy, I regret to say I doubt Valery Afanassiev’s second Schubert recording for ECM will achieve the same ‘connoisseur’s choice’ as his first.
 
Dominy Clements 

Masterwork Index: Schubert piano sonatas

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