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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Des fragments aux étoiles
Shani Diluka (piano)
rec. 2013, Maison de la musique de Nanterre.
MIRARE MIR240 [58:00]

Shani Diluka is no stranger to these pages, with her album Route 66 warmly reviewed by Brian Reinhart, and some Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Grieg all released and available for exploration. Putting Schubert’s last and longest piano sonata alongside a truckload of brief dances is an intriguing one, but with the title ‘Fragments to the Stars’ at least the idea of miniature jewels in music is conjured from the outset.

Diluka’s performances of these dances are very musical, and I very much enjoy the sound of the Bechstein instrument she is using. This has a deep resonance in the low registers, a nicely rounded lyrical feel in the rich mid and pearlescent upper scales which work very well for Schubert, creating a more vocal feel than the usually more brilliant and forward projection of your typical Steinway. These days we’ve moved away from the old-fashioned image of Schubert as something of a Viennese chocolate-box composer, and my only fear in having these light pieces corralled together in this way was that we would end up finding it hard to shake such associations. With darker pieces such as the German Dance No. 3 D. 366 and a nice mixture of major and minor keys there is a certain amount of contrast, and with Diluka’s delightful playing one can but sit back and enjoy what’s on offer. The sheer brilliance of Schubert’s inventions in this genre carries the day, but I would still argue that this procession of miniatures is a little too much in one go. That’s just my view and I am sure many will disagree. The transition between the Mélodie hongroise and the opening of the following sonata sounds very natural and works superbly.

Shani Diluka plays Schubert’s Sonata D. 960 with a subtle touch, not bathing the first movement in swathes of pedal or courting controversy through tragically slow tempi. The transition before the first movement repeat is given a special atmosphere through sheer quietness, adding impact to the more violent return of that low trill from the first bars. Diluka’s narrative drama in this movement is found more in richness of expression than in wild extremes implying hidden text. Dynamic contrast there is aplenty, rising from the stillness of a quasi-silence in those transitions, and leaving room for a wide-open ceiling. Valentin Erben’s booklet notes hint at the opening, and by implication the rest of the movement, is “bathed in magical harmonic light – [touching] us like a ‘fairytale from olden days.’” You may or may not agree with this non-macho point of view, but there is a great deal of magic to be found in the result.

I like Diluka’s timeless tempo in the second movement, and the atmosphere she creates in sustaining the underlying harmonic notes. This is arguably not strictly accurate to the letter of the score, but there is no denying the absolute beauty in this sound. Diluka sounds more extended than Maria João Pires on Deutsche Grammophon for instance (see review), but in fact is only longer by 20 seconds or so. Diluka is reserved almost to a fault in the more rapid central section, her touch skating over the notes to create a collective sonority that almost, but always just avoids slipping beyond a point at which notes are being missed by the hammers. As the volume increases this allows for greater development of colour and texture, and with the return of the opening material the music sounds not merely resigned, but holds both beauty and a kind of wistful determination.

Having been held in the spell of that remarkable Andante sostenuto the Scherzo allows us up for air, played with a delicate fizz by Diluka, who creates a dance both spectrally ethereal and unpretentiously prosaic, relishing the darts thrown by those accented off-the-beat notes in the central section. The final Allegro ma non troppo is quite a wild ride in terms of tempo, but always kept within bounds of control and restraint through maintaining that basis in a quieter dynamic. Even as we race we float above the ground, and an early morning mist hides our feet and the dirt of the field from our eyes. Even the more violent moments are more a triumphant flight than that expression of anger of frustration that can sometimes be communicated in this movement.

The search for that elusive apparition, the ‘perfect’ D. 960 will continue but I have very much enjoyed discovering and exploring Shani Diluka’s recording. It is not easy to pin down where I find myself seeking more from her performance, but there is the smallest area of doubt for me in that first movement Molto moderato. Every choice is valid, and each moment in each section has its own strengths and beauty, but therein rests my minor feeling of restlessness – that sense of a movement in sections rather than an ongoing and truly connected narrative. There is just a little too much lingering between some transitions, and some gear changes between passages are a touch too artificial, moments in which you can hear Pires moving onwards towards the next musical goal even amidst moments of silence; shaping tensions and resolutions in a more cohesive continuum. These are admittedly micro-observations based on the subtlest of nuances, like criticising a flower garden for being a home to grasshoppers. I would in no way want to put off anyone from acquiring this superb disc, but nor can I allow Diluka to run away with the laurels of a ‘definitive’ D. 960 for those of us who seek and collect recordings of this piece like crusaders chasing the Holy Grail, but without the swords and other general unruliness.

Dominy Clements

Track listing

Valse sentimentale n°13 opus 50 D. 779 [1:13]
Deutsche Tänze n°5 opus 33 D. 783 [0:41]
Valse n°2 opus 18 D. 145 [0:44]
Valse n°8 opus 18 D. 145 [0:46]
Deutsche Tänze n°14 et n°15 opus 33 D. 783 [1:23]
Deutsche Tänze n°5 opus posthume 171 D. 790 [1:24]
Valse noble n°10 opus 77 D. 969 [0:44]
Originaltänze, (Erste Walzer) n°1 opus 9 D. 365 [0:45]
Deutsche Tänze n° 3 et n°4 D. 366 [1:33]
Deutsche Tänze n°11 opus posthume 171 D. 790 [0:49]
Deutsche Tänze n°3 opus posthume 171 D. 790 [0:46]
Trauerwalzer opus 9 n°2 D. 365 [0:44]
Valse n°10 opus 33 D. 783 [1:19]
Mélodie hongroise opus posthume 120 D. 817 [3:18]
Sonate en si bémol majeur D. 960 (1828) [41:53]


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