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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Piano Sonatas - Volume 2 Sonata in A major D664 (1819) [21:43]
12 Gräzer Walzer D924 (1827) [19:05] Sonata in B-flat major D960 (1826) [45:34]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 2013, Wyastone Leys, UK NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6298 [77:22]
In early March 2020, I had the pleasure of reviewing the final Volume 6 in Vladimir Feltsman’s voyage through Schubert’s Piano Sonatas and associated works. I concluded my very positive review stating that I’d really enjoyed this mixture of works from various periods in Schubert’s last ten years. Inventiveness and surprise are a constant throughout and Feltsman makes a great ambassador for this music. The recording in Wyastone Leys is ideal. I now feel I must explore the other five volumes which I’m sure have those same high qualities. Since then, I’m delighted to say that I’ve received from Nimbus: the first five volumes and the recently very favourably reviewed Volume 1. All bar Volume 5 were reviewed by Ralph Moore and I will be auditioning that disc after the first four.
This second volume, the latest in Feltsman’s growing discography for Nimbus. There are over twenty recordings to which Brahms has recently has been added. It was made in the same three day recording period as the first volume which suggests how much these works are in his blood. The two sonatas chosen are amongst my favourite works. I was intrigued to see how Feltsman approached them as it was apparent that his timings were longer in places than usual. D664, written when Schubert was 22, is a perfect example of his genius as a piano composer. I first heard the work about 25 years ago as part of Alfred Brendel’s Philips recordings. Since then I have enjoyed versions from the likes of András Schiff (Decca) and Wilhelm Kempff (DG). I sampled the first movement as part of my introduction to Feltsman’s cycle and was surprised at his taking just over nine minutes for the first movement Allegro moderato. As it happens, I had taken Paul Badura-Skoda’s mid-1990s 2 CD set on MCA to compare his take on various piano pieces for another review. Hearing Badura-Skoda, who takes a mere 6:32, shows a more optimistic take on this movement whereas Feltsman is more world-weary and resigned, which some may feel borders on the pedestrian. Both approaches have validity; it’s one of the joys of comparing different players. He is in his element in the Andante which seems to be darker than its outward naivety might first suggest. There’s a plaintive melody which has always appealed and is wonderfully realised here. I can imagine some Schubert lovers preferring a softer approach but I warmed to it. The Allegro may seem to be outwardly joyful and I love Ralph Moore’s comment of it being “replete with birdsong and galumphing rustic dance in three-quarter time.” There is certainly dance in abundance in this movement part offset and part intensified by an underlying moroseness. I felt that, as with much of Schubert, there’s an inward pain and feeling of dissatisfaction with life and that dark clouds are not far away. Certainly, Feltsman delivers a very interesting and successful take on this outwardly charming and beguiling work.
In between these two contrasting sonatas are Twelve charming Gräzer Walzer D924 from 1827. These foreshadow Brahms’ delightful works in this medium. Schubert visited Graz, the capital city of Styria and Austria's second-largest city after Vienna, in 1827 and also composed the short delightful Grazer Galopp D925 in which one can imagine the soldiers dancing. It resides in András Schiff’s Decca box. The Waltzes don’t appear to have been recorded often but the sheet music is readily available and one assumes, they were bought by the Viennese public. They make a charming addition to this disc.
Schubert’s final Sonata No. 21, D960 is a phenomenal work from his last days. It also stands as an example of the “heavenly length” of some of his works. My early heroes in D960 were Kempff (DG), Curzon (Decca), Schnabel (Warner) and Barenboim’s first outing (DG). I also heard James Lisney play it live in late June 1996 at London’s Wigmore Hall. It’s a piece that has come to mean a great deal and absorbs me for its, in this case, three-quarters of an hour. The first movement molto moderato seems to stall early in the piece but Feltsman has a clear vision of where he’s taking the piece. You gain a palpable sense of dialogue and power struggle of the by then tortured and dying Schubert. Ralph Moore makes comparisons with many of the great interpreters, some of whom I’ve been fortunate to hear. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he draws parallels with Sviatoslav Richter. I have Richter’s D960 in a massive100 CD Brilliant Box “Russian Legends”, which I heartily recommend. There is also a five CD set “Sviatoslav Richter in Concert”of which the site has a review by Jonathan Woolf which required detective work on recording dates. Nobody interested in this multi-faceted work should miss Richter but Feltsman too seems essential. I came to the end of the monumental first movement feeling I had been on a long “Winter” journey. The atmosphere of Schubert’s final song-cycle is prevalent in the Andante Sostenuto which I found utterly convincing although there are other valid ways of unravelling this. Feltsman exhibits great experience of the romantic piano repertoire and after hearing this movement, I look forward to hearing his recently set down recording of Brahms’ late works. Like Schubert’s admirer, Mahler there is a feeling of a journey with the vista constantly changing. The Scherzo is always a relief after those two intense movements but the joy is not unbridled even if it does inhabit the dance nature that is such a pattern with Schubert. Feltsman is very fine here but artists like Wilhelm Kempff, whose performances have recently been released on Blu-Ray (for a future review), are smoother than the staccato quality here; both seem perfectly valid. When the current epidemic is over I hope that I may have the opportunity to hear Feltsman live; it would be a very special privilege. At the end, I gave silent applause in recognition of something very special.
The recording is exemplary with the piano sound beautifully recorded. Vladimir Feltsman supplies the programme notes and the cover has a painting “Moonlight by the sea” by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) who painted the famous “Wanderer above the sea of fog”. All in all, this is an extraordinary album which leaves one drained of emotion. It may be an acquired taste but Feltsman’s Schubert demands hearing. I’m looking forward to reviewing the remaining three volumes with eager anticipation.