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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major D.959 [41:43]
Minuet in A Major, D.334 [3:13]
Minuet in E Major, D.335 [3:55]
Minuet in C-Sharp Minor, D.600 with Trio in E Major, D.610 [6:51]
Arcadi Volodos (piano)
rec. 2017-2019, Teldex Studios, Berlin
SONY CLASSICAL 19075868292 [55:42]

Weirdly, Sony provides no timings on this new release – what’s that about? Do they wish to avoid drawing attention to the fact that it is well under an hour of music? Irritating; my timings above are lifted from a download website. Likewise, the recording dates provided are oddly vague; all we know is that the above were recorded some time over the last three years. Why so coy?

Finally, to complete a trio of complaints, why is Volodos’ name set in a typeface three times the size of the composer’s, which is so small as to be easily overlooked? (Yes; I know why…)

Having got that out of my system, I’ll address the performances…and they are sufficient to banish all petty complaint.

Making some comparisons with other recordings on my shelves, I find that except for the Rondo, Volodos is slower than Pollini [39:19] and Perahia [39:34] by almost a minute in every movement. Compared with classic old recordings from Kempff and Klien, he is again slower in the Andantino but otherwise similar to them; however, they do not take the repeat in the first movement. Tirimo, recorded in 1996, is similarly leisurely but he, too, avoids the repeats. Of more recent recordings, Volodos is closest to Feltsman [41:23], however, even there Feltsman is considerably faster in the Andantino.

All of which points to Volodos’ emphasis upon creating refinement of line and shaping of phrase over propulsion; a sense of spaciousness prevails here and his exquisitely graded dynamics, encompassing the widest possible range, serve to enhance that combination of serenity and exhilaration. The question is, does the sheer beauty of his playing compromise the turbulence of Schubert’s conception? The slow speed chosen for the Andantino – surely closer to Lento – is controversial, but the poetry and sonority of his playing negate all criticism; has a pianist ever coaxed more seductive singing from a grand piano? The depth and definition of the digital sound helps us to appreciate the mastery of his playing; the grandest utterances are complemented by the most tender and intimate of exquisitely turned phrases. Volodos casts a spell over the listener, such that one idea follows the other so naturally that the entirety of Schubert’s vision is spread before you like a tapestry of dreams. Just the arpeggiated conclusion of the first movement is enough to make you catch your breath; he makes Pollini sound comparatively hard-edged and perfunctory; the momentary pauses and delicate nuances of phrasing are magical.

His gamble with a slower tempo for the Andantino certainly comes off for me; Volodos imposes a mesmerising quality upon the music, accentuated by the bell-like resonance of the sound and creates an atmosphere redolent of a stillness missed by Perahia who delivers it at a rather hastier pace. Feltsman is the – in my estimation, undervalued - artist who comes closest for rapt concentration, but even he must yield to Volodos here. Written a mere two months before Schubert’s death, this sonata stares into the murky abyss in the Andantino then surfaces in the Scherzo to bob on the waters and thumb its nose at mortality. The “singing Schubert” of the opening of the finale is addressed with the utmost simplicity and lack of artifice, despite the virtuosity of the playing which becomes increasingly apparent as the movement progresses and the music acquires greater complexity.

After such riches, the inclusion of another sonata would have been counter-productive, so the three more rarely performed minuets are a pleasing makeweight but in no sense negligible. They derive from Schubert’s youth and are mostly slowly and sensitively played here, as if to emphasise their kinship with the preceding sonata; however, the stately tread of the opening and conclusion of D.600 is pure Bach.

Had I heard this recital earlier it would have been included in my 2019 Records of the Year; as it is, it belongs in the collection of every devotee of Schubert’s piano music.

Ralph Moore

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