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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Allegretto in C minor D 915 [5:56]
Four Impromptus D 899 [27:47]
Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960 [46:02]
Nami Ejiri (piano)
rec. 10-12 January 2014, Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany.

Nami Ejiri was born in Tokyo, the child of a distinguished pianist and has garnered a collection of competition prizes. Ejiri is now based in Germany and has a flourishing career particularly in Western Europe and Japan. There have been only a handful of CDs since a 2002 debut with Mussorgsky, and on this evidence there should be more.

Late Schubert piano music is now a crowded field on CD, but this particular programme is an attractive one, with the popular impromptus of D899 preceded by the less common but no less attractive C minor Allegretto and followed by arguably the greatest of the sonatas. Ejiri is completely effective in each of these works, without quite making any of them so distinctive as to disturb the existing loyalties of most collectors.

The performance of the Allegretto captures very well its elusive, even enigmatic character. With its simple ternary form and themes in octaves, and Schubert’s trademark major-minor oscillations, it can seem insubstantial, a mere farewell gift for a departing friend — which is what it was. Friendship is one of the keys to Schubert’s character and Ejiri brings out the subtly haunting quality of the music.

The first impromptu is the longest of the set and has a narrative thrust which is well caught, each episode seeming to grow out of its predecessor quite naturally. The etude-like second piece has ceaseless right hand triplets, here treated with flowing lightness. The emphatic dance to which they give way is not too leaden-footed, so that the return of the running triplets feels inevitable. In the third piece Schubert virtually invents the nocturnal Romantic miniature, and Ejiri does its eloquence full justice. More flowing passagework is found in the last of the set, with a properly pulsating melody in the middle section. This is an excellent account of what is probably the most recorded and most loved of all Schubert’s piano music.

The timings above will have alerted devotees of the B flat sonata to the fact that here we have another recording artist for whom the molto moderato marking of the first movement means a very slow tempo, and who despite that also favours the exposition repeat. Richter started this, and quite recently Korstick on CPO did the same but sustained the tempo more strictly such that Richter’s timing of over 24 minutes became over 25 minutes. Here we have a tempo fractionally swifter than those two, but a very similar effect overall. A broad tempo is everywhere implied by the music, which with its frequent rumbling low trills and silent bars is clearly in no hurry. This places great demands on the performer’s concentration and ability to place the expressive demands of the moment in the broader context of the sonata structure. From Ejiri the very start is not entirely persuasive, since we have a slight hesitation between the first and second notes of the theme, like a drawing-in of breath. The time for rubato is surely after the main tempo is established? Things soon settle down, and the movement progresses through its leisurely journey often with an intimate, withdrawn quality, but still rising to point out the architectural signposts along the way. That is essential since with or without the repeat the opening movement of the B flat sonata is a big structure, and the listener needs a sense of direction. Ejiri provides that alright, although occasional expressive hesitations can suggest that for her it is more important to enjoy the view than reach our appointed goal. That said, the coda still brings the satisfaction of a destination safely gained.

The slow movement, or at least its opening section, is also slower than most, but the music anyway seems designed once more to suggest time standing still. The scherzo is steady rather than sparkling, but that too is of a piece with this interpretation. The marking is Allegro vivace con delicatezza and though Ejiri is more delicate than vivacious, the effect is of an agreeable light-heartedness after so much inward contemplation in the first two movements. The finale rounds off a notable traversal of this great work with alertness to its ambiguities of mood and key. In the lively coda Ejiri provides a vigorous conclusion to the last work the composer ever wrote for the piano.

The late Schubert B flat sonata almost seems to be taking the place of the late Beethoven B flat sonata, the Hammerklavier, as an Everest that all pianists must climb at some stage, despite or because of its scale and interpretive challenges. So it is not surprising that the catalogue is stuffed full of very good versions – and this is one such. The great ones - for me those include Curzon, Brendel, Pollini and Richter - are difficult to dislodge from their continued eminence but new attempts on this particular peak should always be welcome. That's especially the case if they are as well executed as Nami Ejiri’s version is.

The sound is very good at all dynamic levels, the instrument well in focus in a convincing acoustic, neither too reverberant nor too dry. I shall return to this disc, mainly for the Impromptus and the Allegretto, but also to see if the approach to the sonata, especially its first movement, has worn well.

Roy Westbrook