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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) L’enchantement Retrouvé
Four Impromptus, D.899 (Op.90) (1827) [30:01]
Six Moments Musicaux, D.780 (Op.94) [30:09]
Ingrid Carbone (piano)
rec. 2019, Odradek Records Studio. DA VINCI CLASSICS C00253 [60:10]
These two sets of klavierstücke by Schubert have several things in common. One is that each set bears a title which was probably invented by a publisher, rather than chosen by Schubert; and each of these titles is inappropriate. In the 1820s the word impromptu would have set up expectations of, in the words of John Daverio, something “along the lines of the fashionable salon pieces for piano produced in sizable quantities during the initial decades of the nineteenth century by the Czech composer Václav Jan Tomášek and his pupil Jan Václav Voříšek […] these were tailor made for amateur pianists who could negotiate a certain amount of flashy but not very difficult passagework. Schubert’s impromptus are of an entirely different order; cast for the most part in larger forms, they posed far greater challenges to players and listeners than the charming character pieces of Tomášek and Voříšek” (‘“One More Beautiful Memory of Schubert”: Schumann’s Critique of the Impromptus D.935’, The Musical Quarterly, 84:4, 2000, pp. 604-18). It is no surprise that Schumann (in a review in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (December 14, 1838) should have observed (with reference to D.835, though the comment is equally apt where D.899 is concerned) “I can hardly believe that Schubert really called these movements ‘impromptus’”.
Leaving aside the implications of this admittedly new generic term, the French word ‘impromptu’, in normal usage, designates something produced off the cuff, without forethought. Only those deaf to Schubert’s artistry could think such descriptions appropriate to these pieces. Like Impromptu, the title Moments Musicaux trivializes Schubert’s music, overlooking, or refusing to acknowledge, its seriousness of craft and meaning. To compound the insult (doubtless not conscious) the first publisher of these six pieces, the Viennese publisher Marcus Leidesdorf actually printed the title as Momens musicals. Few, surely, would disagree with John Warrack’s comment in the booklet notes for the reissue of some of Alfred Brendel’s recordings of Schubert (Philips Duo 465-061-2), that the publishers had used “a title whose nature and grammar [Schubert] is unlikely to have approved. These are more than ‘moments’, extending a thought, or playing with a phrase, harmonic idea or technical figuration, turning it into a poetic reflection”.
Like many a salon piece, most of the works on this disc are relatively brief (but how brief is brief? The pieces range in length, in this performance, from 10:50 to 2:07). But brevity is not the same as slightness. One thinks of great aphorisms or epigrams. Their brevity is an essential aspect of their power: – “For most of history, anonymous was a woman” (Virginia Woolf); “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” (Churchill). In examples like these, and in Schubert’s short piano works, concision leads to increased impact, rather than to triviality or slightness.
Ingrid Carbone certainly doesn’t regard these ten pieces as in any way slight or as works produced without forethought. What is compelling about her performances, overall, is the way in which she balances the claims of melody and structure in her playing of these ten short, but pre-eminently mature, pieces. Her tempi are sometimes a little slower than we have become used to, but when this is the case, for the most part it seems to be part of a coherent vision of the music. When, for example, the march-like theme early in the C-minor Impromptu is presented as a kind of funeral march, it makes sense in terms of Carbone’s larger reading of the piece; when the march disappears, it is transformed into a beautiful consolatory passage. In the second Impromptu Carbone’s playing is beautifully fluid, though her precise placing of accents means that there is never any danger of the fluidity causing any loss of shape. By the end of this short piece [6:12] we have travelled a long way; the close is melancholy and the fluidity has turned crystalline in its precision. Carbone takes the third Impromptu gently, in both tempo and volume, so that it is a serenade which doesn’t force itself on the attention of the serenaded, but rather one which insidiously takes over the mind and heart. In the fourth Impromptu Carbone’s handling of the relationship between the two themes is beautifully effective, a confirmation of the respect in which she holds Schubert’s formal ideas.
Ms. Carbone is equally assured in the Moments Musicaux. In No.1 in C-major she presents, lucidly and without fuss, the complex rhythmic subdivisions in the writing; the result is smooth and limpid but with a sense of puzzles existing beneath the surface. There is a sense of scale which seems to belie the relative brevity of the score. In the Andantino in A-flat major which follows, Carbone respects the siciliano rhythm, but divests it of any kind of sparkle. She explores a landscape of profound misery, one might even say a condition of desolation, in which there is little sense of bitterness or protest; the tone, rather, is of an unrhetorical reconciliation with the inevitable end. (Given the date of this composition, it is hard not to hear in it Schubert’s response to the knowledge of his own approaching death). The third of the moments (!) has perhaps been played more often than most of its companions. Heard in isolation one might take its ‘bounce’ at face value (after all it was written in 1823), but heard after the Andantino in A-flat major, any ‘bounce’ in the writing inescapably sounds ironic, any hint of ‘joy’ or ‘hope’ undercut by the composer’s (and the pianist’s) sense of their ultimately illusory nature. Where the fourth piece in this set, the Moderato in C-sharp minor is concerned, it has to be conceded that Carbone doesn’t capture the quasi-Bachian quality of the opening quite as well as, say, Schiff and Brendel do. But in the middle section in D flat-major her playing has a rare beauty, and the ensuing return to the opening material is well-handled. The fifth of the Moments Musicaux, the Allegro Vivace in f-minor, begins with a percussive dactyl and its echo; accents on the beat are a repeated feature in the main body of this piece, essentially in a ternary structure, before the return to the earlier motifs. I have never found this one of the more interesting of Schubert’s short klavierstücke and well-disposed as I am to Ms. Carbone’s performances, she doesn’t do a great deal to persuade me that I have been guilty of a blind-spot hitherto. In the final Allegretto (in A-flat major) however, I was very impressed by the way Carbone built up (as the score requires) a lengthy melodic line from the short motifs with which the piece begins. Carbone’s cantabile playing is fine here, though I think it is the one occasion where her choice of a slow tempo does become relatively ponderous.
The recorded sound is excellent throughout (the sound engineer is Marcello Malatesta) and captures very well the timbral nuances of the Bechstein Model D played by Ms. Carbone.
Over the years there have been quite a few distinguished recordings of these ten remarkable pieces – names like Schiff and Brendel, Pires and Orkis or, further back, Schnabel and Fischer – come to mind. This new recording doesn’t quite merit a place in that exalted company. But it is certainly a very fine recording – among the very best new recordings of these works that I have heard in recent years; and, it should be remembered, this is only Ingrid Carbone’s second CD. Her first, Franz Liszt: Les harmonies de l’esprit (Da Vinci Classics, DVC 00144) I have heard only on a streaming service through my computer’s speakers, but that too sounds impressive. The very least one can – should - say is that Carbone is already a very accomplished pianist of real insight, and that she shows promising signs of becoming an even more remarkable and important artist. Carbone is an impressive young artist – and her abilities are clearly not limited to the piano. At the age of 21 she graduated summa cum laude in Mathematics from the University of Calabria. Since then she has taught mathematics at universities in Italy, given papers at mathematics conferences, and is Assistant Professor of Mathematics back at the University of Calabria. A quick Library search has revealed articles by her in well-regarded international journals such as Applied Mathematics and Computation, Journal of Mathematical Analysisand Applications and Journal of Approximation Theory. Carbone brings to her performances at the piano a mind which ranges beyond music. I suspect that her future career (as a pianist!) will be very much worth watching.