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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ungarische Melodie in b minor, D817 [3:32]
Sonata in G, D894 (Op.78) [36:20]
Six Moments musicaux, D780 (Op.94) [27:19]
Allegretto in c minor, D915 [4:56]
Four Impromptus, D935 (Op.142) [34:24]
Sonata in B flat, D 960 [39:05]
Sir András Schiff (fortepiano)
rec. Kammermusiksaal, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn, 2014. DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 4811572 (UK) 2425/26 (elsewhere) [67:11 + 78:28]

This is not the first time that András Schiff has given us the late Schubert Piano Sonatas: his recordings of D958, 959 and 960, with Four Impromptus, D899, recorded in 1990, is a notable bargain on a Double Decca budget-price twofer, 4751842.  The Impromptus, D899 and D935, Moments Musicaux and shorter pieces are on another Double Decca (E4581392).  Those albums are excerpted from an 8-CD set of all 21 sonatas, with the Trout Quintet and Moments Musicaux, D780 (Decca 4805218).

I reviewed the Decca 2-CD sonata album in a survey of recordings of D960 in DL Roundup June 2012/1.  Then as now my benchmark for this wonderful sonata was and is the Clifford Curzon recording, still hanging on to availability by the tips of its fingers as a download only of a multi-CD set, Decca E4750842, best obtained from prestoclassical.co.uk (mp3 and lossless)1.  It’s possible to purchase just D960, but there are so many other goodies in the rest of the set: the Grieg Piano Concerto with Ĝivin Fjeldstad and the Dvorák and Franck Piano Quintets not least among them.  I’m at a complete loss to understand why such wonderful performances have fallen out of the catalogue on disc.  He omits the first-movement repeat, which I think essential, but Curzon, like Beecham, is one musician whom I can forgive for anything.

Since my survey in 2012 a recording by Barry Douglas has appeared on Chandos (CHAN10807, with Wanderer Fantasia, etc.) and has generally been welcomed, not least by me, though without quite dislodging top recommendations – review reviewDL News 2014/6.

I like Schiff’s Decca recording of D960, but ultimately I ruled it out of contention because of the rather abrupt way that he makes the gear-changes in the first movement, though awarding full marks for including the repeat.  Alfred Brendel, whose various recordings of this sonata (Philips/Decca) are otherwise also high on my list, omits the repeat, too, as does another otherwise strong contender, Imogen Cooper (Avie), an omission which unbalances the sonata.

By taking the repeat, Schiff’s earlier recording weighs in rather more heavily than most at 20:08.  That’s comparable with Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich (Hyperion Archive Service or download) who takes 20:25, and Stephen Hough, who insists on the repeat in his notes (Hyperion) is only a fraction faster at 19:57.  The new Schiff recording clocks in at a fairly brisk 18:34.

The other important difference is that whereas the earlier recording was made on a Bösendorfer, the new ECM was made in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn on a restored Franz Brodman fortepiano from about 1820 which Schiff owns but is on loan.  It is, of course, more intimate in tone than the modern instrument, but it suits Schubert’s music very well.  I’m not the greatest fan of the fortepiano but only downright haters of the instrument need steer clear on this occasion.  It doesn’t quite portray the full range of emotion that Curzon achieves – I find myself falling into the trap of assuming that Schubert may have had the sound in his head of an ‘ideal’ instrument – but it speaks to us in a way which I find convincing: lyrical and intimate, so that I almost wanted to sing along, rather than impassioned.  It won’t always be the way that I want to hear this sonata but I’ve already named plenty of fine alternatives for that and several others are listed in MWI Recommends.

There’s still an element of gear-changing as on the earlier recording, but it’s much less noticeable, perhaps because of the sweeter tone of the fortepiano.  All in all Schiff’s brisker tempo makes me wonder if I was wrong to read the same kind of emotion into this sonata which I find in the String Quintet in C, D956.

The same is true of the second movement: I don’t want to hear the emotion laid on thickly here and I like Schiff’s way of letting the music speak for itself, but I shall also wish to hear other recordings which are more overtly emotional.  At 7:49 he’s noticeably faster than Curzon or Brendel but arguably closer to the andante sostenuto marking.

I’ve concentrated on D960 because it’s not only the pinnacle of Schubert’s piano works but it also ranks alongside Beethoven’s late sonatas as one of the masterpieces of the repertoire.  If you dislike this account, the rest of the 2-CD set will hold little attraction for you, but if it appeals to you as it does to me you should enjoy the other performances.

Not surprisingly, given what I’ve written about D960, it’s the lyrical qualities of the other works that shine through, though without neglecting their other aspects. In the Hungarian Melody, Allegretto and Impromptus my comparison has been with Alfred Brendel, recorded in 1972 and 1975 on an ADD Philips reissue (4425432, with Impromptus, D899, also available as part of Decca Duo 4560612).  In these works the more intimate nature of the fortepiano suits the music very well though, again, I shall not be throwing Brendel out.

For the Sonata, D894, and the Impromptus, D935, the obvious comparison is with Andreas Staier who, despite the word ‘pianoforte’ on the CD cover, actually plays these two works on a fortepiano.  The two performers adopt almost exactly the same tempi in D894 except that whereas Staier allows the second movement to dream a little more – this is, after all, a sonata labelled ‘Fantasy’, though the marking is andante – Schiff is more direct.  Heard in juxtaposition Schiff captures the andante marking better and makes Staier sound a little too measured, though I’m sure that would be less noticeable without the direct comparison and there’s no lack of power from Staier where it’s called for, about 2:15 into the movement.  Neither fortepiano strains the listener’s indulgence – at least, not this listener’s.  If you are seeking just these two works, Staier could well be your man (Harmonia Mundi HMC902021).

I listened to the ECM recording as a 320 kb/s mp3 download from 7digital.com, where you can find the equivalent of two CDs for £7.99, but without the booklet.  Though mp3 is far from ideal for piano music – one of the most demanding media to record – the recording sounds fine in that format, so I can recommend the CDs with confidence.

This is very much an alternative view of late Schubert.  I wouldn’t recommend these recordings of the two sonatas as my first choice but I shall be returning to them to hear aspects of the music which others don’t convey.  I certainly hope that I have not given the impression that the mellower tone of the fortepiano makes the music sound too gemütlich or comfortable.

1 or stream/sample/download in lossless sound from Qobuz, who also offer an even more complete set of Curzon’s recordings.

Brian Wilson


 




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