This boxed set offers nearly ten hours of music on 8 CDs, providing the most complete survey of Schubert’s Piano Sonatas ever recorded. It represents the fruits of twenty years’ research, scholarship and reconstruction by the renowned pianist Martino Tirimo. Cypriot by birth but a London resident of many years, Tirimo was in 1975 the first pianist to give a public performance of a properly complete cycle of the 21 Sonatas. He recorded them between late 1995 and July 1996, their release timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Schubert’s birth. Having acquired EMI Classics, Warner have here re-issued these recordings in a very attractive bargain package, available from some sources for under £20. Their only drawback is the omission of Tirimo’s original essay detailing the rationale behind his completions.
My comparisons were primarily with the quasi-complete set from the great Walter Klien, who gives us 14 complete and four incomplete sonatas; three (D567, D571 and D613) are missing altogether. For those, Tirimo either used Schubert’s sketches to finish movements or imported “orphan” movements as appropriate; he also provides D277a, an alternative version of the Menuetto from D279 and two Allegro fragments - complete to a fault, one might say.
I also re-listened to other accounts of the later sonatas by such as Richter, Kempff, Curzon, Pollini, Perahia and Rubinstein. It seems to me that Tirimo, although not overtly characterful, combines a Romantic sensibility with a Classical poise, more in the manner of Kempff or Serkin. He is inclined towards understatement and is, as such, not amenable to the listener’s instant gratification; like so many subtle artists, he demands repeated hearing. In slow movements, Tirimo is often more leisurely than some and inclines towards a more restrained, reflective manner. By comparison, Richter is more wilful and idiosyncratic, Klien quirkier and given to grander gestures, Pollini more demonstrative and inclined to underline contrasts in tempo and dynamics and Perahia more overtly lyrical, while Tirimo looks for the drama beneath the melodic line. Yet time and again, I found myself admiring the essential rightness of Tirimo’s interpretations; indeed, as I played these discs I found increasingly that I was listening to the music itself rather than being conscious of Tirimo as interpreter - always a good sign.
Time, space and my limitations as a reviewer do not permit a detailed consideration of all twenty-one sonatas, nor am I convinced that every one is so meritorious as to qualify for Tirimo’s claim that they are “unjustly neglected”. Sometimes the young - was he ever anything else? - Schubert’s invention audibly flags and becomes repetitive, such as in the Scherzo from D850, but Tirimo clearly makes as persuasive a case as possible for them all. Many of the earlier sonatas are ambitious and virtuosic in scope and expression, while the middle period works are more often grand and imposing, a case in point being No.14 D784, which is by far the most sombre, weighty and powerful in that genre. Tirimo uses plenty of pedal to amplify the cavernous acoustic he desires and emphasises the left hand to provide gravitas; the whole mood is a typically paradoxical Schubertian amalgam of lonely despair and essential lyricism. The importation of the Adagio D505 to complete No.12 is very well conceived; its high seriousness providing stark contrast to the cheeky opening of No.7 which follows.
The first disc begins with No.18, a noble, compelling work with an especially charming Allegro featuring the sound of bells in triple time. Tirimo’s playing here is lyrical, unshowy and unforced - delightful. It is quite a surprise to move on to No.5 which is so much more Mozartean and instrumental in mode; then we experience another mood in No.3 whose delicate, sighing Adagio has a much more vocal quality. Tirimo displays a subtle naturalness of phrasing then brings a supple, Viennese lilt to the “Allegro patetico”.
No.17 in CD2 is in “gran concertante” style and Tirimo easily rises to its demands for the crashing chords and rapid scales which so impressed and influenced Liszt. Even so, he remains equally adept at providing the lightness of touch required for the Allegro, one of whose main themes Brahms seems to have borrowed for his medley of student songs in his “Academic Festival Overture”.
His playing in No.13 D664 is notable for the finely judged rubato. I particularly enjoyed the power and conviction of Tirimo’s accounts of No.19 and my personal favourite, No.16, in which he perfectly captures both the dreamy wistfulness and the wild, desperate hysteria which alternate in the Moderato.
D959 is essentially played “straight” without the obvious interpretative touches and foibles of more celebrated pianists; it is strong, sincere playing of complete integrity. The final sonata, D960, too, is devoid of the kinds of liberty Richter takes with it; it is measured and profound but perhaps slightly lacking in the drama Pollini finds in the left hand ostinato passages or the kind of contrast between light and shade that Perahia creates.
The recorded sound is very fine; just occasionally a touch “boomy” and bottom-heavy in comparison with the warmer sound given to Perahia, but generally very satisfactory; I can hear no difference in the acoustics of the two locations.
There runs throughout Schubert’s compositions for voice and piano a singing river which constantly operates as a pathetic fallacy: the sparkling brooks, purling streams, rushing torrents and eddying depths so audible in his music all graphically denote complex psychological states. From the naïve simplicity of the Andante in the first sonata to the melancholy beauty of the opening Allegro to D571, Tirimo demonstrates that he has the temperament to encompass the entire gamut of Schubert’s emotional range and proves to be a trustworthy guide through this great sequence of sonatas which span the whole of the composer’s short, extraordinarily creative life.
Masterwork Index: Schubert
CD 1: No.18 in G D894; No.5 in A flat D557; No.3 in E D549 [78:28]
CD 2: No.17 in D D850; No.2 in C D279; Menuetto in A minor D277a [70:19]
CD 3: No.19 in C minor D958; No.9 in F sharp minor D571; No.1 in E 157 [76:56]
CD 4: No.20 in C minor D959; No.11 in C D613; No.4 in A minor D437 [77:56]
CD 5: No.16 in A minor D845; No.15 in C ‘Reliquie’ D840 [75:13]
CD 6: No.14 in A minor D784; No.12 in F minor D625; No.7 in D flat D567 [69:29]
CD 7: No.13 in A D664; No.10 in B D575; No.8 in E flat D568 [71:35]
CD 8: No.21 in C sharp minor D655; No.6 in E minor D566; Fragments in C sharp minor D655 and E minor D769a
rec. November 1995 (CD1); December 1995 (CD2); January 1996 (CD3); February 1996 (CD4); March 1996 (CD5, 5-8); April 1996 (CD6); May 1996 (CD8, 1-4 & 7-10); July 1996 ( CD7, 4-11), St Philip’s Norbury and July 1996 (CD5, 1-4; CD7, 1-3; CD8. 5-6)