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This double CD of Schubert piano pieces serves as a tribute to the life and art of Viennese pianist Jörg Demus. He was born in 1928 and died in April 2019, aged 90. Eloquence here releases his earliest recordings of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux. At the time of these sessions, which took place over a week in April 1958, Demus was not yet 30. That said, he was by then an experienced recording artist, having made LPs of the duet music for Westminster with his Viennese colleague, Paul Badura-Skoda. There had also been a Remington LP of the Moments musicaux. It was the Austro-German repertoire of the Classical and early-Romantic eras that would make Demus’s reputation. For many, like me, his partnership with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Winterreise (DG) from 1966 was our first experience of his delicate powers. Recently, I had the great pleasure of hearing his duets with Badura-Skoda, who also died last year, in Mozart (review). The latter is a splendid recital. I have a similar set of pieces by Badura-Skoda in a fine budget price MCA set that I would also suggest is worth tracking down.
Born and raised in Vienna, Demus understood this music as a precursor to the popular waltzes and polkas of the Strauss family. When he died in April 2019, one of the many affectionate Austrian obituaries referred to Demus as “the ballet-master of ten fingers”. This set consists of the content of two LPs, recorded over a few days in 1958. It sports a delightful picture of Schubert playing to friends from the first LP. The sketch, presumably of Demus, is from the second LP’s sleeve. They were both reviewed in “The Gramophone” of June 1959 by Roger Fiske. He clearly felt that some of the music wasn’t worthy of recording and, in particular the 3 late Klavierstücke, D946. He’d reviewed recordings of these works earlier that year. They are also to be found included on discs by Walter Gieseking (review) and Claudio Arrau; the latter in an Icon set (review).
Essentially the Impromptus are improvisations. Schubert wrote eight of them. Firstly D899 and then the second set D935, written in the same year, 1827 but which weren’t published until 1839, posthumously as Op.142. They may have been influenced by the Impromptus of Jan Voříšek and by Voříšek’s teacher, Václav Tomášek. In his interesting and well written notes, Peter Quantrill states that it was Schubert’s publisher Haslinger who came up with the name ‘Impromptu’; it cannot be established with certainty that Schubert was aware of Voříšek and Tomášek. Quantrill mentions that Demus made the valuable distinction between the melodic impulses predominant in Schubert’s vocal music and the rhythmic ones that prevail in his piano writing. He also mentions Johann Strauss. I’ve always seen Schubert as a forerunner to the “Waltz Kings” as well as to Mahler so this makes perfect sense. Demus’s playing of the two sets of Impromptus is very impressive. I immediately warmed to his straightforward technique in the first of D899. I found Gieseking far too slow and heavy. I’ve played Demus several times as I feel I’m getting Schubert ‘direct’. In the first, F minor Impromptu of D935 there is a palpable sense of rhythm and dance. Demus manages to be powerful at times without over-hitting the keys. The way the Impromptu develops is magical and Demus appears to be playing just for a solitary listener; is it the man in the snow on his own as in “Winterreise”? There may be sorrow in the playing but there are some felicities also and these speak of hope. No. 2, the “Rosamunde” No. 3, with its magnificent set of variations and the tripping, dancing No. 4 are all performed with youthful vigour, sincerity and authenticity. Demus was about the same age as Schubert when he recorded these works and it shows. This compares with the more intellectual Brendel who is very authoritative here. I could go into each piece in depth but as I want this review to avoid heavenly length, I will just state that these are as distinguished and as humane recordings as you could hope to find. Demus illustrates certain similarities between these apparently less consequential works and the contemporary great final Sonata D960.
The 3 Klavierstücke, D946, composed in Schubert’s last months, might have been from an uncompleted set of Impromptus. In 1969 Roger Fiske stated that they “are mercifully shorn of the repeats, and are all the better for it”. Over the past 25 years, I’ve got to know these late works very well and have about ten versions to hand. From the zestful beginning of the first to the more intricate second and the more playful third, they offer so much, right down to a breathless finish. There was a suggestion that Schubert was inspired here by Goethe’s “Faust”. Its Viennese through and through and Demus conjures up the "Kaffe und Kuchen" of the Ringstrasse cafes where Schubert’s music is still played, outside by impecunious students.
The six Moments musicaux have been amongst the works played most regularly. Notable versions include Curzon’s early 1970s traversal on Decca and Brendel’s analogue recording on Philips in 1973. Demus concludes: “Above all in his consideration of the Impromptus and Moments musicaux, we must always keep in mind that the player should set himself to be carried by the natural current of the music.” Sample if you can, the charming miniature third piece to understand what this essentially decent and modest man was conveying understated, like a conduit for Schubert. The fourth is a deeper work and like quite a lot of this music was obviously a huge influence on Schumann, Brahms and perhaps even Rachmaninov. There is a real fire in the belly in the fifth moment, like No.3 in the key of F minor. The final morsel in the A minor Allegretto has always seemed like a farewell; again Demus seems to get it right. It made me wonder what music Schubert might have produced if he’d lived to Beethoven’s age; he was a pall-bearer at his funeral, a year before his own premature demise at 31.
In Fiske’s concluding remarks he felt that these pieces might be given a rest by the various gramophone companies; advice that clearly went unheeded. He did mention, correctly at the time, the scarcity of discs of the piano sonatas. One fact that has been puzzling me is the dearth of recordings by Jörg Demus of the Sonatas. I’ve seen a recording, released in 1995, of Sonatas 18 and 21 on DHM but have not heard or read any reviews of it. His fellow piano duo partner Paul Badura-Skoda recorded two complete sets - one on “period instrument” - so why did Demus not follow suit? One aspect of Demus’s playing is a very limited rubato and a lack of ornamentation. As Peter Quantrill points out ‘it is possible to find more aristocratic recordings of these pieces, there are few enough that breathe the air - not always sweetly perfumed - of Schubert’s Vienna”.
In 1959, each set cost just under £2 each; that’s £94 today, so today’s price of about £13 is very modest. This set is a treasurable reissue and has been very well re-mastered; none of the distortion mentioned in those early reviews is present. I hope that other of Demus’s many recordings will receive similar treatment. Meanwhile, this is an outstanding tribute to “the ballet-master of ten fingers”. David R Dunsmore