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Schubert piano sonatas BRIDGE9550AB
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata No. 17 in D, D850 (1825) [39:35]
Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, 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]

The opening melody of D960 is a commanding presence through the first movement. Anne-Marie McDermott makes it substantial and soothing, not altogether serene, straightway explained at the end of the first phrase by another presence: a subterranean disturbance in the bass. The second part of the theme (CD2, tr. 1, 0:33) restores its calm and balance, from McDermott like a fervent hymn. But the bass introducing semiquavers below the third part of the theme (1:03) means it has to work harder in its affirmation and goes into flights of fancy before a crescendo brings it back to its opening, now in a more robust manner. Another crescendo takes it off course into the second theme (2:11). B flat major has become F sharp minor and anxiety abounds. This theme, in the left hand, is covered, arguably overmuch by McDermott, by her icy descant in the right hand, adding extra alarm. Repeated in the right hand, it remains wayward and excitable, gathering ornaments and then going into ecstatic upper register. McDermott makes it sound like a suitable case for remedial treatment. Even the dancing quavers in triplets into which it subsides (3:25) have an edge paving the way for the manic end of the exposition where a phrase of resolution (4:08) melds by turns into a storm of epic proportion, ostentatious double arpeggio, charming poise and lastly a nightmarish intent on mischief and the loudest, most violent appearance of the subterranean bass. McDermott pulls no punches. The exposition repeat again starts soothingly, but you’re now more attuned to the shadows, yet also admire the music’s perseverance and thus that of the character it embodies. McDermott reveals the agony rather more than the ecstasy. Yet I fancy the dancing quavers are a touch blither now, the double arpeggio more elegant, while the nightmarish transition is absent. The development (10:46) plunges the opening theme into the minor and McDermott’s dancing quavers become troubled indeed. But now a third theme is sketched (12:02) which, coming to fruition in the major mode (12:51), provides an empathising response to the distress, confirmed by the reappearance of the first theme. The recapitulation is delivered by McDermott with the sober concentration of unperturbed acceptance of the coexistence of the first theme and its subterranean shadow.

I compare Llŷr Williams recorded live in 2018-9 (Signum Classics SIGCD 832, now licensed to Presto). His approach is one of clear-sighted probing, the first theme a smooth search for peace, the bass disturbance just a marginal background of his overall optimism, burgeoning at the fuller treatment of the theme. His second theme in the left hand is as clear as his bright descant in the right, his dancing quavers neatly pointed, double arpeggio refined, transition an unexpected, new experience in its gangling in the left hand, but unthreatening, as is even the louder subterranean bass. In the exposition repeat Williams’ dancing quavers seem a touch freer. His development is a patient working through without great distress, yet the salvation brought by the third theme is still clear and satisfying. His concentration on melody and shape creates a balmier recapitulation and restful coda because everything has always been accepted.

McDermott’s approach to the Andante sostenuto slow movement is unconventional. She takes a light-hearted, even joyous, stance to the left-hand four-note rising figure, making a piquant contrast with the melancholy of the right-hand melody which dovetails it with phrases of falling emphasis. The isolation of the left-hand fourth note, always higher than the right-hand melody, is thus clarified, though this distracts somewhat from the first note, bottom C sharp, which spells for me a bell toll. So, we’re in a funeral procession, but should this be very clear or just the backcloth to affectionate celebration of past times? For McDermott it seems a dance of death with gaily coloured, even jaunty flourishes. I took more immediately to her A major central section (tr. 2, 2:44), whose more substantial song quality and accompaniment convey warm remembrance of the energy of life. Remembering a relationship because it’s a duet, beginning with a baritone, then taken up by a soprano (3:10) before back to the baritone (3:34), introducing a cautionary element, then soprano again (4:29) responding pleadingly. This dialogue isn’t resolved, ending with a poignant bar of silence. With the return to the C sharp minor opening the bass now has a four-note alternation with the four-note rise, for me like the bite of a funeral carriage wheel. McDermott handles poetically the becalming modulation to C major (6:00), paving the way for the C sharp major coda (7:16) where the original sorrowing melody ends as rich, dark-grained affirmation.

Williams’ approach is differently daring: timing at 10:31 to McDermott’s 8:37, his sostenuto makes the Andante more like Adagietto. The gain is a more intense, mournful melody, more emotive and distilled but beauteous too, more affecting for the listener. Williams’ bell effects, the lowest and highest notes of the left-hand rising figure, are as clear as McDermott’s, but the highest notes more respectful. The loss is an over formal, less natural, duet in the central section, so the disquiet of its final soprano presentation is muted. However, Williams achieves a more moving stillness in the ppp coda, a sense of the calm with which life can ultimately close, or death be accepted.

Part of this acceptance, as in the Eroica Symphony, lies in the following movement’s celebration of the energy and excitement of new life. The marking of the Scherzo (tr. 3), Allegro vivace con delicatezza and ubiquitous softness, clarify its character. McDermott presents it as full toned, bright, opalescent gambolling. The crescendo un poco in the second strain is enough for McDermott to achieve a sense of climax. Her Trio (2:09) thoughtfully teases out shadowy aspects of this new life, thus accounting for the interplay between the right-hand syncopation and left-hand fzps, but is the angularity thereby overstressed, a mite careful where it should be carefree?

Williams, timing at 4:01 to McDermott’s 4:22, for me gets the vivace freshness of this movement’s new life better and with more con delicatezza, even his fps comparatively moderated. In the Trio I find his balance between the two hands more agreeable, achieving clarity without undue weight.

Like her second movement, McDermott’s rondo finale is unconventional. After its opening call to attention, the contrast of her relaxed, delicately musing approach to the theme is a pleasant surprise, with no detail and variety missed. The first episode (tr. 4, 1:29) is also relaxed, yet also has an assured sweep and McDermott brings a lovely, rippling semiquavers’ backcloth before silence and, for the first time ff (2:38) and the second episode where McDermott goes for grandeur rather than terror. A fair choice as this is a paper tiger, the sun coming out again in its descending theme (3:07). And then McDermott beautifully relaxed again until the developmental area (4:21) becomes more tense and clamorous, rescued by the return of the rondo theme. McDermott casts the final return of that in endearingly innocent tiredness, though for me her Presto coda (9:08) is too formal.

Williams, timing at 8:21 to McDermott’s 9:08, brings more conventional pep to the rondo theme while also taking a relatively restrained approach. He gets across the variety with finesse and is rhythmically very precise. In the first episode his semiquavers’ accompaniment is less alluring than McDermott’s. His second episode is more formal in its grandeur, as is the sunshine, thereby rather pallid. His development, however, has more excitement than McDermott’s. His final return of the rondo theme is an affectionate, poetic farewell before a well contrasted showboating coda.

Best for me in D850 is its opening Allegro, whose sustained bravura writing and virtuosity are outstanding, as is McDermott’s playing. Its opening theme is raw energy: crashing chord, then repeated chords in rising sequences leading to a flight to the skies, then commandingly swooping down. McDermott eschews grandeur in favour of the freshness of surprise and exhilaration. The second theme (CD1, tr. 1, 0:59) McDermott makes pixy like, contrasted in its lightness, warmer and more playful in its return in the left hand (1:31). In between comes a third element (1:12) featuring bold ff plunges in both hands; thereafter twinkling fairy lights and demonic flashes alternate. To the development (4:42) as well as considerable force McDermott brings a triumphant air while the coda (8:20) matches terseness with splendour.

Interpretation and recording are impeccable.

Check the price before buying as this release retails as Two for the price of One although not all retailers have done this.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Dominy Clements (Recording of the Month)

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