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Schubert BRIDGE9550AB
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata No. 17 in D major, D850 (1825) [39:35]
Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major, D960 (1828) [43:28]
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)
rec. 20-25 April 2021, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, USA
BRIDGE 9550A/B [39:35 + 43:28]

American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott has been around for a while, but has become a more familiar name internationally via Bridge Records, with fine recordings of Mozart piano concertos (review), Chopin (review), as well as Prokofiev and Gershwin. This recording of two remarkable Schubert piano sonatas is spread over two discs, but as far as I can see the pricing is the same as for a single disc.

Don’t be fooled by the flowery cover to this release. Anne-Marie McDermott is fiery in her dynamic contrasts and truly red-blooded in the opening Allegro to D850 - no chocolate-box Schubert here. The recording is stunningly vibrant with excellent deep bass and refined sonority and timbre throughout from the Yamaha CFX instrument used. The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall is a large space but up-front detail is the balance here, with the acoustic present and helpfully resonant without creating any blurring to the sound: you are an audience of one, sitting with the piano on the stage and oblivious to anything periferal.

The way McDermott builds her massive climaxes reminds me a little of Paul Lewis in his Harmonia Mundi recording of D850 (review). Neither pianist is afraid to push the piano strings hard. Lewis is a tad swifter in general, but McDermott’s less helter-skelter approach allows Schubert’s surprises to emerge with greater clarity, and give greater expression to his melodic lines, especially in that marvellous Andante con moto second movement. There is an individualistic approach at work here, but it is not so quirky as to distort or distract from the score. We get to hear new things, with Schubert’s stretching of the genre brought out just enough to make our modern ears prick up and pay attention, while at the same time we can allow the deeply satisfying nature of familiar music to massage our medullas.

Schubert’s final piano sonata D960 is always something special, and Ann-Marie McDermott’s recording is very good indeed. I made a few comparisons with Francesco Piemontesi’s recording on the Pentatone label as a relatively recent competitor (review), but while they have some comparable qualities I have to say the piano sound for this Bridge release is much more involving, with Piemontesi’s more distant perspective - relatively speaking - putting up a veil between us and the performer. We are truly spoilt with McDermott’s confident closeness. Her lyrical elegance and fearless touch with Schubert’s grimly sharp contrasts creates a special atmosphere - balanced somewhere between prosaic musicality and intangible magic but with a clear narrative line and no annoying mannerisms. That first Molto moderato movement comes in at a conventional 20:59 as does Piemontesi’s at 20:13, with McDermott allowing her listening and response to that Troy Music Hall acoustic to give the music just a little extra space at the heart of the movement. McDermott is like Maria Joćo Pires (review) in the opening section of the Andante sostenuto second movement, giving those rising phrases a pointillist feel and avoiding use of the sustain pedal. This is less a place of timeless magic than one of poetic drama, shaping towards the stormy beauty of the middle section and framing it with an opening question mark, and a ‘what-we-have-learned’ seriousness by the end. The Scherzo is lively and vivacious, Schubert’s accents playing to the gallery in the big acoustic. McDermott gives a ‘hesitando’ feel to the central section which holds back the pace but is certainly interesting. Both of these sonatas have that strangely jolly feel with which to end, Schubert seemingly handing us a lollipop for getting through all of his most earnestly expressed feelings. McDermott doesn’t ham up the finale but digs in where the music takes us momentarily to darker places, reflecting back on the heft of the earlier parts of the sonata, and all the more shocking for their “rather droll” surroundings.

There are many fine recordings of these works around but I would highly recommend Anne-Marie McDermott’s performances; not least for the demonstration sound quality of the recording, but especially for her ability to make us hear Schubert anew. Jaded critics and music collectors alike are always on the hunt for just this kind of release: well-produced, superbly performed with a unique and rewarding musical voice, and stimulatingly original in favourite repertoire.

Dominy Clements

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