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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 18 in G, D894 “Fantasie” [39:23]
Hungarian Melody in B minor D817 [3:17]
Fantasia in F minor for Piano Four Hands D940 [18:52]
Allegro in A minor for Piano Four Hands D947 “Lebensstürme” [16:38]
David Fray (piano), with Jacques Rouvier in Fantasia and Allegro
rec. Église Notre Dame du Liban, Paris, 3-6 November 2014
WARNER ERATO 2564 616699 [78:59]

I absolutely loved David Fray’s first Schubert CD and have almost played it out since listening to it. I came to this disc with a lot of anticipation, therefore, and I wasn’t disappointed. He uses the “Fantasy” title as a way into Schubert’s piano music, and the booklet notes explain quite a lot about why; but what really matters it that this is beautiful music extraordinarily well played. I suspect I’ll be playing this disc every bit as much.

What impressed me most about Fray’s earlier Schubert was the sensitivity and responsiveness of his playing, so I felt right at home when the G major sonata opened so thoughtfully and suggestively, as if unwrapping a parcel ever so slowly and merely hinting at what is inside. Fray seems to be telling a story without wanting to spoil the ending, and after his journey around the first theme, the second glitters as delicate and dainty as a music box. The development, however, takes a much darker tone which Fray embraces before taking us down a much prettier, more innocent route. Tragedy and innocence seem to sit cheek by jowl, almost hand in glove in this performance, and Fray's achievement is to tread oh, so carefully the line that divides them - or which, in some cases, doesn't. The coda is a real treat, ending the music with the same exploratory gentleness that began it. The second movement has all the directness and simplicity of one of Schubert’s Lieder. The Minuet is on the bluff side, with a touch of the Hungarian lilt to its outer sections but the Trio is a beautifully worked miniature of subtlety and poise.

There is a touch of gaiety to the final Rondo, like a dance but never just a four-square working out: instead it is always flexible, and the sonata has a beautifully subtle ending.

I really enjoyed the Four Handed works, too. As a sonic world, it’s rather unique; to my ears comforting and enveloping, warm and appealing. The opening of the great F minor Fantasy gently undulates, singing out the bittersweet main theme while suggesting a universe of meaning beneath. Even though storms gather, a profound sense of Schubertian depth hangs over the whole thing, particularly the opening section. The Largo episode begins stridently, perhaps with even a touch of melodrama, then melts into something both serious and sweet, even playful, before a return to the strident music. The 3/4 beat of the Scherzo whirls in a spiral but the playing keeps it firmly grounded, and the final section feels intricately argued with an undeniable sense of purpose that nevertheless never becomes overbearing. It’s marvellous and it’s wonderful that, as with Fray’s earlier take on the Moments Musicaux, the repetitions of the opening theme sound subtly different every time.

The Lebensstürme movement has a jangly opening that settles into a more edgy, troubled Allegro section with a darkly beautiful second theme. It’s stormy, yes, but there is also a strong undercurrent of poetry, even humour towards the end. Even the Hungarian melody has something beautiful to its legato style; characteristic yet quietly passionate at the same time.

So Fray takes another step forwards as a poet of the piano, confirming earlier promise and establishing him as a serious voice in the Schubertian world. What will he bring next, I wonder?

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Michael Cookson