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Schubert sonatas CRC38963900
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A minor D537 [24:51]
Piano Sonata in B major D575 [25:10]
Piano Sonata in A major D664 [23:29]
Piano Sonata in E flat major D568 [32:14]
Piano Sonata in A minor D784 [22:07]
Piano Sonata in A minor D845 [36:45]
Piano Sonata in D major D850 [40:59]
Piano Sonata in G major D894 [38:28]
Piano Sonata in C minor D958 [33:17]
Piano Sonata in A major D959 [40:57]
Piano Sonata in B flat major D960 [43:33]
Larissa Dedova (piano)
rec. 2018-2020, Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice, University of Maryland, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
CENTAUR CRC3896-3900 [5 CDs: 362:04]

First impressions of this set were that it was a little unsmiling, an issue in the earlier more lyrical sonatas. I wanted a bit more abandon in the delicious surges of Schubertian melody and a bit more devil may care drama in their numerous outbursts of passion. But as the cycle progressed I began to appreciate Dedova’s sober, no nonsense approach. Strangely, with this much Schubert at one go, a quieter, thoughtful approach pays off. The world of the composer’s imagination can often be a sickly and neurotic place which if exaggerated can get a little wearying. I refer to this as the existential angst Schubert and whilst existential angst is part of Schubert’s creative makeup from surprisingly early in his career, it is only one component of his genius. What I learnt to appreciate about Dedova’s interpretations is that she takes a more balanced view with any histrionics leavened with musical good sense. Nothing is overplayed

Her account of the early E flat major sonata D.568 exemplifies the virtues of this set. It is lovely, measured playing with no sense of forcing the issue. I appreciated the way in which she refuses to patronise these works of the young Schubert. By avoiding excessive underlining of those moments, such as in the splendid slow movement, that anticipate the composer’s darker maturity, we get to hear his youthful visions more clearly in all their freshness and wonder. Her scrupulousness means that, at the other end of the scale, there is no false simplicity. Schubert was a complex artist from his teens and that is what we get here. No frills, no special pleading.

This way of performing these sonatas couldn’t be further from the hair trigger emotionality of Mitsuko Uchida. It is a measure of the greatness of this music that it can accommodate such extremes without the slightest strain. The best performers take us on a journey not just within each sonata but across the cycle. Of course, Schubert did not conceive these pieces as a cycle any more than Beethoven did his 32 yet we have no trouble conceiving of Beethoven’s as a set. With both composers, their piano sonatas, taken as a whole, span their entire creative lives. We are able to trace their development but also the narrative of their creative lives. I found Dedova’s quieter manner made it easier to listen to longer stretches of Schubert’s set which brought out this longer scale, larger narrative arc with greater clarity. From sonata to sonata, we hear Schubert’s astonishing talent deepen and grow. Perhaps what I am trying to get at it is something simpler – this is a set whose sophisticated, understated way had me coming back for more. It is more like someone showing me the delights of these scores in a domestic setting than delivering grand theatrical soliloquies. An example is the opening movement of the D major sonata D.850 which can often get very noisy and rather empty when gone at with Beethovenian fury. This same movement demonstrates a reticent humour to Dedova’s playing which is easily missed behind the somewhat plain exterior.

Dedova’s relative restraint is not aided by occasionally rather harsh sound which has an unfortunate tendency to glare in the all important upper reaches of the keyboard. That said, it doesn’t get in the way of the best element of her performances which are those still moments when Schubert seems to pause in wonder at his own inspiration. Characteristically, Dedova lets such moments be without drawing excessive attention to them.

There were times in the better known later sonatas in which I did get a little frustrated with Dedova’s refusal to let her hair down a little more and just indulge the genius of Schubert’s writing but her set is nothing if not consistent from start to finish. Music making relies on trust between performer and listener and as I got to know this set better my trust in Dedova’s conception of these sonatas grew. Take the slow movement of that same D major sonata D.850. To begin with it sounds too much like beer and bread for Schubert’s gorgeous melody but by this stage I had learnt patience with her method and it isn’t long until that patience was rewarded. The glorious second melodic group of this ABABA structured movement is breathtaking in its evocation of its mysterious, interior world. There isn’t the tiniest drop of sentimentality to Dedova’s manner here and Schubert sounds all the better for it. It is as if she saying Why would you need anything else but these notes? And, on the evidence of this recording, she would have a point.

The scherzo of the same work demonstrates the downside of this approach as I couldn’t help wanting greater flair and adrenaline. I have chosen to focus on this particular sonata but in many ways my comments could stand for this set as a whole. Incidentally, the finale of D.850 finds Dedova back at her best, weighing up lyrical fancy, drama and structure with judicious ease. Try the sense of total rightness she finds in its quiet close and what you will hear is consummate Schubert.

No matter how well a pianist navigates the early sonatas, any complete set is going to stand or fall on how it fares in the later ones. It is tempting to rush to the last three but for me the litmus test is the expansive G major D.894. I will dismiss as spurious nonsense that this is a lightweight or exclusively sunny piece. It is one of Schubert’s most searching masterpieces in the right hands. Tempo matters here as, particularly in the first movement, textures are often spare and the temptation is to supplement Schubert by rushing or finding effects that just aren’t there. The tempo for that opening movement isn’t an allegro and it needs to be considerably slower than an allegro for Schubert’s almost mystical conception to flower.

Dedova scores very highly in this opening movement. The tempo is just right to allow the music plenty of space yet it retains the necessary lilt to its its 12/8 time signature. She doesn’t mistake those open chords for rhetorical gestures but treats them correctly as one of Schubert’s slowest, most solemn melodies. Typically, she doesn’t overdo the filigree decoration of the second subject keeping the whole thing within the frame of the subdued, almost hieratic mood of the movement as a whole. This is a section where Dedova’s patience and restraint allow access to the heart of music. Too many performers skate over its surface. Even big names like Brendel can’t help but inject extraneous thrills. Listen to the very end of the moment where Dedova achieves an almost zen like calm. It is quite wonderful.

The rest of the sonata continues in this superior vein and the much maligned finale greatly benefits. Play this movement like it is just a jolly outing to the countryside and you miss more than half its greatness. There is real magic under Dedova’s fingers right at the end of the movement.

But what of those unavoidable final sonatas? Unsurprisingly, Dedova makes no concessions to their reputation and takes them on in the same spirit as the rest of the cycle.

I will admit that the opening of Dedova’s C minor D958 sounds rather gruff next to Cordelia Williams’ transports of delight on her recent recording but her directness brings its own consolations. Both women avoid the yawning pit of treating this music as if it is Beethoven which helps enormously. Williams gets further into the strange world of this piece but Dedova’s is a worthy alternative. Ultimately, Williams brings all the virtues of Dedova but adds an extra level of seduction in the lyrical music. As for established names, I find Brendel too much in Beethoven mode and Perahia, at the opposite extreme, a little too lacking in guts. Paul Lewis will either be your ideal midpoint between the two or a performance that succeeds at neither. It left me a bit unimpressed. In case I should be accused of excessive harshness, I should point out that I consider all of the above mentioned names amongst the best recordings of this music and my comments are strictly aimed at sorting one from another. In this piece Cordelia Williams reigns supreme but Dedova deserves her place amongst the best of the rest.

If Cordelia Williams dominates D958, then Volodos is the benchmark for D.959. Dedova is not as ultra refined in terms of the sound she makes compared to the Russian but there is a lot to be said for a more plain spoken approach. Andras Schiff’s imperious recordings on ECM on the fortepiano give us a priceless insight into the kind of sounds Schubert was working with. It has to be said that in the slow movement of D959, Volodos flirts with becoming precious and whilst he never quite topples over into it, Dedova’s take on this music is very different indeed. Nobody gets close to the nervous breakdown in musical form that Uchida enacts in the middle section of the movement but there is a question as to whether anyone would really want to however exciting the Japanese pianist’s version is. Volodos and Dedova are strikingly similar in this section though Dedova finds an unexpected grandeur in a passage that is normally mined for neurosis and that grandeur casts a shadow over the remainder of the movement. Her account of the finale is a triumph and the equal of all comers in another of those tricky light seeming but actually profound Schubert finales.

A crowded field for the other sonatas, becomes a crush when we get to the final sonata in B flat D960. I don’t intend to engage in detailed comparisons but to give the reader some idea of my own preferences I will state that, regardless of many excellent accounts I have heard of this transcendent work, I always end back with Schnabel. Right from the opening theme, we are aware that Dedova’s performance is going to be a solemn affair. This is very much seen from the perspective of Winterreise and the slow movement in particular is very grim, even brutal in places. It is a very distinctive perspective and one that works on its own terms even if it wouldn’t be my first choice.

There are superficially more exciting or more glamorous accounts of this music but few that penetrate deeper beyond the superficial. There is a wisdom to Dedova’s playing that transcends individual details or passing pleasures. If I have erroneously given the impression that she is an austere guide to this music then that needs correction. Restraint isn’t the same as being deaf to the great beauty of these works. Dedova is as in tune with that beauty as the best of her rivals. It is more a case of her not making a song and dance about it. Likewise seriousness of purpose is not the same as humourlessness. The smile that plays across Dedova’s face is, however, a subtle half smile (it is clearly audible in the scherzo of D959!)

David McDade

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