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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, D960 (1828)
Drei Klavierstücke, D946 (1828)
Ayako Ito (fortepiano)
rec. 2019, De Academiezaal, Sint-Truiden, Belgium

Ayako Ito approaches the masterpiece D960 with romantic fervour, trusting the less powerful, more refined, tone of the fortepiano will provide authentic period sound compensation. Her opening theme isn’t as soft as pp, but smoother and more swinging than the Molto moderato marking suggests. The deep bass disturbance at the end of its first full statement (tr. 1, 0:24) is more threatening than the pp marking. The clarity of Ito’s running quavers in the ‘tenor’ part enhances the tense atmosphere, yet the third part of the first theme (0:58), more pleading, moves through quiet insistence. The second theme (2:06), is in the tenor part against the ‘soprano’ descant, with Ito’s sensitive balance the latter’s creaminess like a loving companion. The dancing three-quaver groups in triplets which eventually result skip buoyantly. The phrase of resolution terminating these (4:04) deserves more breadth, but the extraordinary exposition ‘first time’ codetta (4:55), like hobgoblins arriving, Ito makes boldly gawky.

In the development (10:19) Ito prefers cool examination rather than shock, its ff climax of the dancing triplets underplayed (11:27). But she builds the tension and dynamic well to the fruition of the third theme (12:18), the most tender and memorable. Ito makes the second theme recap (16:08) more delicate and sensitive. Her coda (19:22) is tranquil yet flowing.

I compare András Schiff recorded in 2015 (review). Timing at 18:29 to Ito’s 19:54, he’s even less Molto moderato, yet overall this enhances cohesion. Softer and humbler, he brings more reflection to the pauses between phrases, a second theme with more sentient descant, smoother dancing quavers and more significant phrase of resolution. His exposition ‘first time’ codetta is more impetuous, with scarier, extreme dynamic contrasts. In the development his opening is more doleful and weightier left-hand significant in creepily pressing forward. In his second theme recap the high quavers accompaniment to the descant is more stimulatingly articulated. His coda is more appreciably rounded with grace and cheerfulness.

The opening of the slow movement juxtaposes a left-hand four note rising figure and melancholic right-hand melody. Ito makes the first and final notes of the left-hand figure very clear as bell peals three octaves apart. In this C sharp minor funeral Ito is sorrowful yet smoothly dignified, her equipoise between the hands arguably overmuch easing the pain of bereavement. The central section in A major (tr. 2, 2:59) remembers the loved one and clarifies a relationship, its theme beginning in rich ‘baritone’ register, the soprano repeat (3:26) adding varied semiquaver runs. From Ito it feels like both parties confirm shared sadness. At the return to the opening (5:36) the left-hand has an additional four-note motif, three semiquavers and a quaver, for me like funeral carriage wheels biting into the road. Ito makes it a clear, inescapable presence. The decrescendo after the melody’s climax finds the left-hand unheeding the pathos of the melody briefly in C major (6:30); yet after the next melodic climax comes a blessing, the coda (7:55) easing calmly into C sharp major.

Schiff, timing the movement at 7:40 to Ito’s 9:02, more Allegretto than Andante sostenuto, brings an angst I feel Ito lacks, despite the beauty of her playing. Schiff’s greater progression and more marked crescendos and decrescendos make starker the emotional situation. His central section’s relationship is livelier, his four-note motif parades implacability, while the C major passage and later coda have a steely clarity.

The Scherzo and Trio celebrate rebirth in skipping dance, Allegro vivace con delicatezza. Ito conveys well another partnership: soprano proposing the first theme, baritone repeating it. Soprano starts the second strain (tr. 3, 016) with a more complex manoeuvre, stressed by Ito’s very scrunchy appoggiaturas; baritone prefers rhapsodising on the first strain. I find Ito a shade too stolid, missing the delicatezza. The Trio (2:22) shows the man a clodhopper, fzps on the beat clashing against the lady gliding across the beat. Ito kindly underplays this, yet to duller effect. Schiff, timing this movement at 3:58 to Ito’s 4:33, is bubblier, appoggiaturas more lithe, dynamic contrasts more telling. His Trio has more swing and the man magically coexists in distinct contrast yet genially with his partner.

Ito’s finale’s rondo theme begins a bit stiff in marking out the rhythm; her second strain (tr. 4, 0:21) is catchier and first episode (1:24) blends calm tone with confident movement, the relationship between melody and accompaniment grippingly maintained, until a sudden silence and ff shock (2:36) of catastrophe, especially when the melodic outburst goes into descant register. But it isn’t tense enough from Ito to be really shocking, as if pre-empting the paper tiger with the sudden pp (3:07). The development (4:16) finds Ito’s scrutiny of the second strain stern before calmer, more beguiling treatment of the first episode and tenser following shock, yet her Presto coda (8:36) needs more heady exhilaration.

Ito, timing at 8:51 against Schiff’s 8:31, is closer to Allegro, ma non troppo but the slightly faster pulse gives Schiff more edge. More distinctive is his quieter p start, allowing lighter articulation and more quicksilver manner. His first episode has more breadth and serenity. His second episode shock is greater while its elimination is boosted by a quickening of tempo. His development is more arresting before a coda of stronger impact.

Best of D946, Three piano pieces, is for me the first. It’s in E flat minor with urgent first strain to its right-hand cyclical theme. The second (tr. 5, 0:15) adds more rhythm, then a melody picked out from the first notes of the three-quaver groupings (0:19). The return of the first strain is in E flat major (0:50), the touch more rhythm a vehicle for Ito screaming a scrunched appoggiatura at the fz climax. The central section second theme (2:54) is in B major, festooned with turns and phrase-ending arpeggios, Ito revealing it as leisurely and affectionate. Its second strain (4:13) adds glissando-like up-and-down hemidemisemiquavers, the return of the first more luxurious in chording and close more rhetorical. To this vibrant, varied piece Ito brings considerable gusto.

Michael Greenhalgh

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