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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata, Op. Post., D960 (1828) [39:05]
Du bist die Ruhe, D776 (1823) [6:39]
Ungeduld, D 795 (1823) [2:15]
Fantasy, Op. 15, D 760 ĎWandererfantasieí (1822) [20:53]
Barry Douglas (piano)
27-28 September 2013, Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music, Cork, Ireland.
CHANDOS CHAN 10807 [69:15]

After warmly received recordings of Brahms for the Chandos label (see reviews here and here), Barry Douglas now turns his attention to Schubert. One might consider starting a series with a composerís final sonata a daring move, but there is no real reason not to. With impressive sound and our soloist on what seems like top form, this looks like a promising prospect.
 
Nothing would be more boring than having every musician record the same music in the same way, but this said, Schubertís Piano Sonata D. 960 demands a certain amount of adjustment from a dreamt of Ďidealí which, for me at least, is probably akin to chasing the crock of gold at the foot of a rainbow. Two artists have come close in recent years, and Rian de Waal and Marie Jo„o Pires are still high on my list of references, with Valery Afanassievís ECM recording as my wild card secret guilty pleasure. Pires is a Ďsafeí comparison, but her pedal-free approach to passages in the second movement are as different to Douglasís rich sustain over a swifter tempo as chalk is to cheese. In this regard Douglas is more conventional, but in this and other aspects of the work we have to ask ourselves Ďwhat is convention?í, in other words, who do we follow, and why donít we create our own conventions?
 
So, what are the points you might find yourself needing to get used to in Barry Douglasís recording? The lyrical line of the opening seems a bit too micro-managed to my mind. Itís something Iíve managed to get used to Ė just about, but there are little ritenuti in some of the descending eighth notes or quavers which seem a little over emphasised. Douglas also likes to give an expressive stretch here and there to the melody, which runs into trouble when these need to synchronise with an ongoing accompaniment in the bass, alberti or otherwise. These are all observations of fractional details, but once perceived they are hard to ignore. Much better to listen to the wider sweep of the music and just enjoy of course, but Schubert was a composer of songs and if you feel the lines are being played in a way not natural to a singer then you get hiccups.
 
Douglas quite correctly takes the repeat in this first movement, and the transition and start of the second section is delicious. There are so many good and juicy things in this Molto moderato that it seems churlish to pick on seemingly minor details, but if itís perfection youíre after then every chip off the old pot is going to reduce the value. The second movement is a gorgeous Andante sostenuto, which Douglas takes a little faster, turning in a reasonable 8:07 to Piresís 9:47. I prefer the world to stop in its tracks with this movement, but if you prefer it to flow and be more songlike then Barry Douglas does a lovely job Ė in particular the tone of the piano is marvelously rounded. He speeds up a bit too much in the transition before the recapitulation, which again is just a downhill slide short of being completely timeless and magical. The Scherzo is pretty uncontroversial and Douglasís playing is light and attractive. He points out the strange on-beat accents in the Trio more than some, but they are distinctive in the score so thereís no reason not to make them a feature. Rubato is more of an issue here, with odd slowings-down feeling perhaps a little overdone. The final movement is great fun though less daring than Pires, who creates more drama out of the dynamics and light and shade from those darting harmonic changes. Douglasís tendency to speed up at times is also apparent here. These are arguably legitimate rubati and every dash is compensated for by a drag, but Pires shows how you can make the music intensely involving without pushing and pulling so much.
 
The biggest pieces on this substantial programme are separated by two song transcriptions by Liszt. Du bist die Ruh is from the Vier Lieder, Op. 39, its slow beauty and almost religious sense of majestic ecstasy contrasting perfectly with Ungeduld from Die schŲne MŁllerin.
 
The Wandererfantasie is a piece which Iíve had echoing in my mind from the fortepiano version by Viviana Sofronitsky (see review), making modern piano versions seem instantly heavy by comparison. The mighty playing of Paul Lewis was an effective cure for this (see review), and while his version is only a few seconds shorter than Barry Douglasís the extremes are wider, the drama supremely intense. The Harmonia Mundi recording is more distant and has less directness of clarity when compared to this excellent Chandos recording, but while Douglasís performance is very fine it doesnít grab me in quite the same way as Lewis. The thickest textures donít have my teeth clenching and my knuckles whitening as they do for Lewis, who creates a quite operatic sense of drama between the disarming little tunes which pop out between the loud bits. The sheer urgency with which he shoves that main theme rhythm at us is so much more convincing, and you can hear the orchestra at work in Schubertís mind as he fights to express a fever pitch of emotion through the relative poverty of his keyboard.
 
This is only with regard to the opening section, and both recordings divide the four main sections of the work by access points. Douglasís sonorities and touch are lovely in the second section Adagio, but it is Lewis who manages to sustain that grimly funereal feel for longer. I also prefer his greater intensity in the following Presto, and it is his playing of the staggering final Allegro is the one which keeps me awake as it goes through my mind at night. Douglas is a touch slower in this finale, but it is the drop in bite between phrases which loses it for me here. Lewis manages to hit us between the eyes with every run and sequence, each step between main themes and each momentary dip, holding that sense of expectation the piece needs if it is not to become a really heavy pile of logs we need to drag home in the dark.
 
I have a real affection for Barry Douglasís playing. His RCA Pictures at an Exhibition was the big new release when I first went to work at Farringdon Records on Cheapside in the 1980s, so I get a little lift every time I see his new recordings. When it comes to Schubert Iíll recommend Maria Jo„o Pires for D 960 and Paul Lewis for D 760, but will look out for his further volumes in this series with avuncular interest and hope it becomes a big success for all concerned.
 
Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Piano sonata D960



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