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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
12 Great Piano Sonatas
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
rec. March & July 2015, St George’s, Bristol, UK.
AVIE RECORDS AV2425 [5 CDs: 354:11]

I have greatly admired Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s recordings on the Avie label in the past, and was delighted to see that he had made this collection of Schubert sonatas. In his booklet notes, Pienaar states that “it is sensible to credit Schubert with an artistic reason for discontinuing a composition, or leaving it aside indefinitely”, and for this reason the only incomplete work here is the famous “Reliquie” D 840, included as important “since it marks the most significant crisis in Schubert’s quest to find his own voice in the large-scale four-movement form… [marking] the divide between those works where Schubert adopts the sonata layout more or less retrospectively… and those works where the kind of thematic material and harmonic devices, accompaniment figures and so-on that Schubert favours seem fully at one with the disposition of that material.”

These are deeply considered performances and Pienaar gives us helpful points on each sonata in the booklet as well as delving further into their context and historical perceptions held on their qualities over the years. Without raking over every sonata individually, there are general features which make this set distinctive. There is a clarity here that makes you sit up and pay attention right from the start. Certainly in the first five sonatas Pienaar is sparing and indeed always creative with his use of the pedal, but more importantly my response is somehow that of hearing each movement with fresh ears. Each time Schubert brings out a waltz or ländler you get that distinctive flavour of the dance, but while the tempi are often pushed a little swifter than in many other versions this doesn’t sound artificial. Schubert needs to whip up some excitement from his perhaps jaded Viennese audiences, and Pienaar makes sure these performances deliver with breathtaking effectiveness. Voicing and harmonies are perfectly weighted, and melodic lines are made to float above accompaniments, more often than not with that technique of delaying the touch of each note just behind that of the left hand. Neither this nor Pienaar’s subtle rubati distort the nature of the music. The same goes for an added sheen of theatricality, comparable with that given to Beethoven’s sonatas by Igor Levit on the Sony Classics label. These were something of a revelation, and my reaction to these Schubert sonatas has been a not dissimilar ‘wow!’

Pienaar’s no-nonsense approach to tempi works equally well across the board here, both in the whirling dances of the earlier sonatas and the stormy dramas that occur in the later ones. Balancing that fine line between helter-skelter superficiality and over-reverential lingering, Pienaar’s narratives for even the longest movements in the last two sonatas keep us engaged both in Schubert’s stream of logical sequence and development, as well as in that jaw-dropping virtuosity of creation and surprise that comes from an ideal synergy between composer and performer.

Pienaar points out that Schubert was no great pianist, and that there was no performing tradition established for these later works or indeed most of the sonatas, only three of which were published in his lifetime. One senses that Pienaar takes this as an opportunity to fill a blank canvas, bringing each work to life in ways sometimes only hinted at in some other recordings. Contrasts between light and dark are etched hard but without being forced. Wit is wit, without imposing 20th century irony or grimness, but there is always an underlying dramatic force, an undertow that resists unthinking ecstasy. I have to resist describing this quality of drama as ‘operatic’ as even the possibility of a mad scene or two is not what I have in mind. Schubert’s contrasts are on a more intimate scale even when pulling out all of the stops - the emotive message drawn from song rather than stage, that theatricality a smoky and candle-lit arena in which all distance between actor and individual audience member can fall away, so direct is the spirit of communication. Pienaar gives himself plenty of dynamic elbow-room and there is no back pedalling with climaxes, but you can think of this as a one-to-one sort of recording: performer and composer immersed with each other, and us listeners as privileged witnesses, free to apply our own thoughts and associations on the whole thing.

I didn’t set out with the challenge of writing a review without mentioning a single specific work or movement, but having come this far I hope you get the impression that this is a set of Schubert sonatas that every enthusiast for the works should be eager to acquire. There is always a temptation to fall into the trap of ‘newest is best’ but there is far more to this than fleeting enthusiasm. This set is, in any case, far more full of variety and interest than Barenboim (review). I still have a lot of affection for Mitsuko Uchida’s Schubert on Philips (review) and it is interesting to compare the poetry in both player’s approaches, but Pienaar’s more high-tensile energy and distinctiveness of characterisation feels like an entire reboot of this repertoire. I have respect and admiration for all of these and the drive and élan of Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi (review), but Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s ear for details and subtleties has planted a seed in my imagination which just makes most other recordings seem a bit ‘flat’. Complete sets such as that of Michel Dalberto on Brilliant Classics (review) and Gilbert Schuchter on Tudor (review) will also always have their place, but please believe me when I tell you: ignore Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s Schubert at your peril.

Dominy Clements

Piano Sonata in A minor, D.537 (1817) [20:09]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, D.568 (1817) [24:25]
Piano Sonata in B major, D.575 (1817) [23:35]
Piano Sonata in A major, D.664 (1819) [21:05]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D.784 (1823) [22:38]
Piano Sonata in C major, D.840 (unfinished) (1825) [20:33]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D.845 (1825) [35:24]
Piano Sonata in D major, D.850 (1825) [42:08]
Piano Sonata in G major, D.894 (1826) [33:21]
Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958 (1828) [32:32]
Piano Sonata in A major, D.959 (1828) [39:59]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D.960 (1828) [38:21]

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