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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major D 959 (1828) [38:54]
Piano Sonata in B flat major D 960 (1828) [43:12]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
rec. 2016, Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Center Art-Forèt, Japan
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 7588 [82:08]

Krystian Zimerman’s solo recordings, such as his Debussy Préludes, still fascinate decades after they were recorded and released. Always a star of the concerto circuit, Zimerman has at last returned to solo repertoire on record with these last two of Schubert’s piano sonatas. “My 60th birthday was approaching and I thought it was time to find the courage for works such as these… I’ve played these pieces for 30 years, but always feared them tremendously because of my unbelievable respect for the composers. Perhaps I worried that if I left them any longer, it would be too late.”

Settling down to comment on the piano sound, I was intrigued to read about Zimerman’s use of a piano adapted with a keyboard to his own design. This is “designed to create qualities Schubert would have known in his instruments. Compared to a modern grand piano, the hammer strikes a different point of the string, enhancing its ability to sustain a singing sound – though it does also set up different overtones and the piano might sound strangely tuned.” This lighter action also prevents ‘the many repeated notes in Schubert turning into Prokofiev,’ though elsewhere Zimerman points out Schubert’s forward-looking composing; the middle of D 959’s slow movement a “tremendous tempest… [that] almost foreshadows Wagner.” Zimerman outlines his reasons for playing all of the repeats in the long first movement of D960, also describing his reasons for recording in Kashiwazaki and the snowy conditions that helped make the experience a total immersion in Schubert.

All of this leads one towards a sympathetic approach to this recording, and it is one I admire very much indeed. When seeking the essence of Zimerman’s playing of the D 959 sonata the word ‘clean’ kept popping into my mind. Without reducing the value of the music, the playing has a clarity which in many ways is quite self-effacing. I’ve read elsewhere that the feeling is perhaps a bit too micro-managed, but on going back to another DG Schubert recording, that of Daniel Barenboim (review), the latter seems much more interventionist, pulling much harder on the rubato gearstick, while Zimerman keeps more of an onward flow by pressing onwards a touch earlier, even after moments of legitimate expressive stretching. This is not to say that crucial moments of repose are not allowed to breathe, and there is plenty of poetry in those transitional moments in the first movement of D 959 that allow the mind to regroup and appreciate all of those surrounding structures.

The Andantino second movement opens with an almost pointillist transparency, Zimerman avoiding a funereal tempo but still making the music’s poignant message unmistakable. That stormy central section has plenty of drama, but takes time to build, maintaining a moderate tempo and allowing those rolling octaves and thunderbolt accents to deliver maximum drama from a base of heart-breaking tranquillity – Beethoven’s Pastoral storm in miniature, but by no means in a teacup. The Scherzo sweeps us away from this moment of profound soul-searching, Zimerman delivering fireworks with those little spread upper chords to distract us from the gloom, the lightness of the piano action really telling in this movement.

What might take a little getting used to are the little breaks in the initial melody of the final Rondo of this sonata, giving it a glottal hesitancy which can seem a little mannered, though any controversy is answered by elegant legato in the reprise. Zimerman’s variety of articulation in this movement is to be marvelled at further along however, the layering of Alberti harmonic flow and the changes in touch between thematic material and at modulations rendering this ultimately a very convincing performance indeed.

All of the repeats bring us a first movement to D 960 which is still only just over 20 minutes in duration. Zimerman isn’t over hasty here, but states that he “tried to find a tempo that is always fluid, with plenty of breathing” – and indeed, there is a certain amount of audible sniffing going on here as well. This is playing that seeks out the song-like nature of the music, creating narrative without over-burdening the material with artificial player-imposed profundity. One of my favourite recent recordings of this work has been that of Maria João Pires (review), also on DG. Pires rises and dips differently with the dynamic in this first movement, creating at times a more tidal effect, where Zimerman lives more in each moment – both approaches having equal validity to my mind. Pires’s narrative is more fantastical, Zimerman’s more a real-world experience: Der Leiermann to Pires’s Lindenbaum. There are magical moments enough, though I experience Zimerman’s Molto moderato as darker than Pires’s, Schubert struggling towards light but still fighting demons even where major-key brightness tries to shine through.

The Andante sostenuto is very special from Pires, finding that timeless place through understated but eloquent expressiveness. Zimerman’s tempo is similar, those passing octave notes also non-pedalled, but the texture of the piano sound less ethereal. Pires finds momentary heroism in the male chorus of that central section, where Zimerman finds a touch of human anger. The Scherzo is infused with the joy of life at the outset, but you can feel something behind the eyes with Zimerman’s performance, an inner knowledge of some kind that prevents genuine abandon. Pires creates a world of sprites that converse cheerfully from their perches in this movement, that central section an interruption for the wise tale of some kind of elder, where in Zimerman’s playing I hear the playfulness of a game with a stern time-out for some clarification of the rules – at least, that’s what springs to mind today.

The final Allegro ma non troppo opens with some clever half-pedalling which allows the opening note to ring on more interestingly than with conventional sustain. Zimerman’s finale is the operatic ensemble that Schubert never achieved in that particular genre, with all of the drama and tender resolution that ties together the moods of everything preceding. For me, Pires and Zimerman are entirely complementary, and fans of D 960 should have both: Pires for when you want to be taken to a different plane of existence, Zimerman when you want to experience Schubert’s musical narrative right up close and personal.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month) 



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