Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major D959 (1828)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 32 in c minor Op. 111 (1822)
Yi Lin Jiang (piano)
rec. 2020, Kronensaal Bietigheim, Germany
SOLARIS RECORDS SOL21012 
Yi Lin Jiang’s Dualis Part 1 can be found on Solaris Records SOL19011, and the ‘Dualis’ title inevitably means there has to be a second part. Jiang reminds us in his booklet note that this project “explores the opposing elements within the language of music: the complementing styles of the classical and contemporary periods, the crossing between earthly and transcendental surroundings, and the emerging of rational intelligence and raw emotion…” The duality here also puts the worlds of Beethoven and Schubert together, two composers who shared the same city but who coincided in death more than they did in life.
Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata in A major D959 is symphonic in scale and in emotional range, from mourning sadness and tragedy to ‘storms of anger and rage’ interpreted as a foreshadowing of Schubert’s impending death. There is no Schubert without lyricism and shapely melodic lines, but this for the most part is one of his least song-like utterances, its poetry found in heartfelt extremes. Where there is that ‘nice tune’ in the last movement Jiang pushes the tempo forward, maintaining the intensity built up in the rest of the piece. Jiang’s fearless approach reminded me a little of Paul Lewis’s recording for Harmonia Mundi (review) from 2014, but with this finale their approaches are quite different, Lewis opting for a more velvety touch and a slower tempo. In general Lewis gives Schubert’s transitional passages just a little more air in the first movement when compared to Jiang, who is supremely musical in this regard but a touch more forthright. That remarkable Andantino second movement is another contrast between these two pianists even though their timings are almost identical. Lewis gives us the full fat pedal legato treatment for that opening theme where Jiang is pointillist, eschewing the pedal much as Maria Joćo Pires does in her Andante sostenuto from the D960 sonata on Deutsche Grammophon (review). This sparing approach serves to heighten the contrast between the initial theme and the stormy fantasia in the central section, creating the impression of two separate worlds where Lewis’s opening becomes more of a curtain-raiser to the black drama that follows. Not to ignore the Scherzo, Jiang is swifter and a touch more playful than Lewis, scampering over the keyboard but equally sensitive to Schubert’s ever-changing moods. Amongst a plethora of options, I admire and love both of these recordings and could live with either on my desert island.
Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 “is a monumental masterpiece of dualism itself: the two-movement structure with its contrasting, yet complementary characters and themes fulfilling one last journey with no return.” My comparison recording here is Igor Levit on the Sony Classical label (review) which for me was something of a revelation when I first heard it. It seems to me that such recordings can be a significant milestone in the evolution of how we perform and listen to great music, and Yi Lin Jiang also compares the building of “new concepts and opportunities” in music to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Jiang’s lodestone is Artur Schnabel, always referring to his “detailed remarks and bold tempo suggestions” when approaching Beethoven. Coming back to the main comparison, Levit is a touch more expansive than Jiang, whose intensity demands just that bit of extra urgency. To my mind Jiang challenges Levit quite effectively in this regard, the control and clarity of the latter being pit against the more overtly dramatic former. Jiang is by no means out of control, but also manages to introduce a raw edge to the music that delivers theatre of the mind rather than of the stage. That tricky second movement is also paced a little more swiftly by Jiang, but this is more to the advantage of the shaping of the whole rather than delivering added depth. The slow climb towards Beethoven’s magnificent rhythmic outburst is done magnificently here, uniting everything that precedes by avoiding artificial profundity and delivering a palpable physicality. There is also nothing laboured or lacking in the long variations that take us to the final farewell, with Beethoven’s extended ‘difficulties’ if anything turned on their head, finding us swept along on a carpet of colour and contrast. I had to go back to Schnabel (review) to see what was on back in 1932, but Jiang is very much his own man, creating something truly memorable from this much visited but ever-fascinating musical mountain.
This is all familiar music, but piano fans owe it to themselves to hear these superbly recorded performances. It’s easy to fall into a ‘newest is best’ trap, but in this case, as with Dualis Part 1, what we have here is world class musicianship. Yi Lin Jiang manages to create the new and the distinctive in ways that are compelling and durable, eschewing quirks or mannerisms that might irritate over time. All of this has to count as something rather special, especially in repertoire as familiar as this.