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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D. 960 (1828) [48:44]
Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946 (1828) [26:34]
Moments Musicaux, Opus 94, D. 780 (1828) [34:47]
Dina Ugorskaja (piano)
Rec. 2018/19, Bayerischer Rundfunk Munchen, Studios 1 & 2
CAVI-MUSIC 8553107 [80:05]

Dina Ugorskaja was born in Russia but she and her parents (her father is the pianist Anatol Ugorski) settled in East Berlin when she was sixteen. She had made her debut aged fourteen in Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and subsequently became a professor in Detmold then Munich. She died in 2019 at the age of forty-six.

She begins this CD with the biggest work, the last of many great Schubert sonatas. I am still amazed that for decades so few pianists recognised these marvellous works. She plays the opening Molto moderato broadly. Richter, who took the most expansive view of this movement, comes to mind, but he, like other great musicians, makes us reconsider the music and convinces us (me, at least) that his controversial tempo is justified when sustained with such concentration. Ms Ugorskaja is not as convincing but Richter, in this masterpiece and so many other works, is incomparable. One odd detail on this CD is the prolonging of the trill in bar 8 to almost double its printed length (presumably a ritardando). This licence – to a greater or lesser degree – is not uncommon, but nevertheless musically unnecessary. Surely the tension created by this foreign note dissipates if excessively prolonged. Such small matters aside, this is generally a strong performance (with repeat) on its own terms. To clarify what I mean by this, I quote the booklet blurb, where we read of her “performance style marked by profound sensitivity and sobriety”. The final word almost ideally sums up my impression. Ms Ugorskaja rarely lightens the mood. This shortcoming is most obvious in each of the triplet passages, the first of which begins at bar 79, shortly after the return to B flat major.

For a few occasional comparisons I turned to a recently acquired performance by Elisabeth Leonskaja, included in a 6-CD set on Warner Classics. Ms Leonskaja's Andante sostenuto is a little more flowing, less dour than her younger compatriot. Her scherzo is truly dance-like, her finale has much more energy and vitality, while her greater range of colours – light and shade – allows some drama. She also brings out a joyfulness and love of life, qualities which Ms Ugorskaja minimises. In the finale Ms Ugorskaja prepares the lyrical theme in crotchets with a slight pull-up, which when repeated becomes a mannerism. The stormy, minor-key sections are powerfully played, but at a few places throughout the movement there are suggestions of carefulness, or tiny moments of over-emphasis or rubato, rather than spontaneity. One may be sure that this is nothing to do with technique, but these hints of calculation detract slightly.

The Drei Klavierstücke are great works from Schubert's final year, but they are programmed rather less often than they should be. Ms Ugorskaja plays the first piece superbly. She includes a later episode which Schubert deleted but which Brahms restored when editing for publication. It is good to hear some extra Schubert, but I think the piece is more effective without it. The other two pieces receive equally fine performances, so I feel this group as a whole is the most completely satisfying on the disc.

Finally, in the wonderful Moments Musicaux Ms Ugorskaja's essential seriousness predominates, but this quality is not always beneficial. Despite the title, these pieces are a far cry from salon music, though some pianists do not realise the underlying pathos. Here we are in no doubt, but I think, for instance, the first piece is too studied and could be more natural. Our pianist works too hard to convey sadness, whereas I believe a certain emotional ambiguity is preferable. This same quality - “smiling with a sigh” (Cymbeline) - is often mentioned in connection with Mozart's music. Ms Ugorskaja takes a similar, rather laboured view of the second piece, which is marked Andante only. Again the third piece does not come over as an Allegro moderato. In the D flat major section from the fourth of the Moments Musicaux I very much like the way she handles the constantly syncopated rhythm. Many pianists simply make this sound awkward. The fifth piece is powerful here, but my feeling is that adherence to an absolutely strict tempo – with small exceptions – creates an even more relentless quality. For the final piece, see my remarks on the first three. The central section would have benefited from more light and warmth, but throughout these six pieces generally more contrast would have been welcome.

There is much beautiful playing on this disc – well-centred and consistently fine piano tone - but while there is also much to admire in Ms Ugorskaja's interpretations – her seriousness, dedication, integrity, freedom from self-indulgence – she has a tendency to be over-deliberate, too considered. Generally she seems reluctant to allow glimpses of sunlight, except, notably, in the A major section of the B flat sonata's slow movement. If I say that I wonder whether she ever performed Winterreise, I probably make myself clear … Now that, I feel sure, would have been a memorable experience. (Interestingly, when I subsequently read the booklet, I found that she devotes considerable space to that song-cycle.) One cannot seriously fault this cultured, disciplined and satisfying pianism, but it is Ms Ugorskaja's musical temperament – sober, short on smiles, which may present a problem to some listeners. Still, in her valid, thought-provoking approach she is absolutely true to herself and I would recommend anyone to listen. I hope my caveats do not seem too harsh.

The recorded sound is superb, while the booklet notes - Ms Ugorskaja's “Encounters with the music of Franz Schubert” - are a rare bonus, engrossing and revealing.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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