Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 (1828) [31:38]
Six Moments musicaux, D780 (1838) [32:39]
Emil Gryesten (piano)
rec. Musikkens Hus, Aalborg, Denmark, 6-7 May 2015. DANACORD DACOCD769 [64:07]
Around thirty when this programme was recorded, Emil Gryesten is a Danish pianist who studied in his native Aarhus, at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and at the International Piano Academy, Lake Como. His teachers have included Anna Øland, Eero Heinonen and William Grant Naboré, as well as Dmitri Bashkirov, Fou Ts’ong, Tamas Vasary and Erik Tawaststjerna who writes the splendid programme notes for this début CD. Danacord have already released his second disc, a Liszt programme including the B minor Sonata.
Of the three great sonatas that Schubert composed in the year of his death, the C minor seems to attract the fewest pianists, although one can find recordings by such as Eduard Erdmann, Radu Lupu, Sviatoslav Richter and Richard Goode, to name just those that have caught my ear over the years. Perhaps its obvious debts to Beethoven have led some artists to look elsewhere. Yes, it is Beethovenian, especially in the opening movement, but it becomes more and more Schubertian as it progresses.
Gryesten gives the impression of having lived with the Sonata for some time. He takes the heroic first theme of the Allegro at a good tempo, realising all its drama without rushing. At first I thought he slowed down too much for the more lyrical second theme, but on a second hearing I was less bothered. He is very well recorded, the bass being particularly well brought out, and the piano tone is very true (Henrik Winther Hansen is both producer and engineer); but I do have a quibble. The Steinway model D used for the sessions has a slightly noisy action, so that you hear a faint but perceptible whang! when some notes are released. One of my best friends, sadly now dead, had a father who tuned pianos for Harrods: hardly a single piano recording passed muster with the old man, and I dread to think what he would have had to say about this one.
The Adagio with its lovely first subject is in A flat, which Tawaststjerna reminds us is the same key as the corresponding movement in Beethoven’s C minor ‘Pathétique’ Sonata; and Schubert also follows his great predecessor in the outline of his contrasting subject. At this point I think we can lay Beethoven to rest, as the total effect of this lovely movement is pure Schubert, even when it waxes dramatic. Gryesten has the gift of presenting a theme simply; he handles the contrasting moods and metres well and produces a full, round tone which he varies in volume nicely. He gives the bitter-sweet Minuet a fine impetus and relates the even more bitter-sweet Trio carefully to it. He chooses exactly the right tempo for the tarantella finale and modifies it judiciously, so that the headlong rush is maintained but never sounds mechanical.
The Moments musicaux are justifiably among the most beloved of Schubert’s shorter pieces and make up a superb suite. Gryesten catches the mood of the C major precisely and definitely does not slow down too much for the contrasting episode. He sings the A flat pleasantly and takes its F sharp minor section in his stride. The hardest of the six pieces is the brief, guileless third in F minor, simply because it has been done to death by ‘great’ pianists who cannot be bothered to play the other five. I am not sure that Gryesten quite hits it off: he finds a simple style but misses some of the piece’s insouciance. He is back to form for the fourth, in C sharp minor, getting both the rippling main theme and the contrasting slightly lopsided theme about right; and the concise, dramatic F minor fifth (Allegro vivace) is very well played. Tawaststjerna suggests that the last piece, in A flat, is often taken too slowly and could perhaps be approached more lightly. He has failed to persuade his pupil, who takes the slow option and drags it out to 10:22. He makes it utterly sad and finds nice gradations of touch, but at his basic tempo the contrasting theme is less consolatory than usual. How much feeling Schubert could pack into just a few notes.
Another Emil G, the peerless Gilels, is the benchmark for the Moments musicaux – you want the recording made by EMI Classics at Abbey Road but marketed as a Melodiya product, rather than the Russian concert recording which is a little clangy. Incidentally he plays that final piece in 8:16, agreeing very closely with another paragon, Rudolf Serkin, who times it at 8:10. Gilels seems to be making up the Moments musicaux on the spot, yet he plays with absolute perfection of technique and tempo judgment. My all-round favourite for the C minor Sonata is Radu Lupu. Although Emil Gryesten does not quite scale the heights of those masters, he has much to offer if you fancy his programme – and if you think the piano action will not bother you.
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