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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Works for Solo Piano - Volume 6
Piano Sonata in A minor, Op 42, D845 (1825) [36:45]
Four Impromptus, Op post 142, D935 (1827) [39:31]
Ave Maria (Sieben Gesange aus Walter Scotts Fraulein vom See), Op 52, D839, No 6) (1825) transcr. Liszt (1837-38, rev. 1876) [5:50]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. 2021, Curtis Auditorium, MTU Cork School of Music, Bishopstown, Cork, Ireland
CHANDOS CHAN20253 [82]

Hurrah for the mix of piano writing and Barry Douglas’ stamina required for this CD. The Moderato first movement of the Sonata in A minor is a dramatic dialogue as lady and gentleman become intertwined in both themes. The first theme begins as a lady’s pp proposition, musing, the double appoggiatura on the second note playful; the mf response, un poco ritard., finely poised by Douglas, is the man’s ‘hold on, things are more serious.’ The lady’s proposition then a touch higher in tessitura, the man’s response more so after which he begins (tr. 1, 0:27) a routine of syncopated chords and busy running quavers soon reaching ff and a parade of sforzandos. You need relief, the second theme (0:50), a five-beat drum motif followed by five marching beats. However, the marching beats are generally soft, merrily workmanlike. Layered over this comes a surprising burst of radiant lyricism (1:09). In coloratura register, the lady’s vision, the dynamic quietens and a return to the first theme opening, now more reflective, especially the male response with no ritard., ending on a sustained, sighing appoggiatura, then taking up in lower register molto espressivo (1:59) the opening of the lady’s phrase, Douglas opting for richness of timbre rather than affect. The development (4:57) has the man, mp, proposing a low tessitura purposeful variant of the first theme to which the lady makes a pp, feathery response. The man wants his statement definitive but the lady continues more airily, supercharging her statement with a feast of running semiquavers. The man now brings more empathy to his variant (5:48) so there’s a meeting point. Out of this comes a serious and passionate version of the first theme as a recapitulation (6:32), the male responding closely to the lady, and then the dramatic climax of the second theme reprised before its opening and now ecstatic climax. Similarly, a more regular recap achieves more intensity in the male molto espress (8:46) and in the extensive, searingly climactic coda (9:14) Douglas brings impressive sonority to the continued mulling over the theme in low register and you realise it has twinned with the march pulse of the second theme.

I compare Llŷr Williams (Signum SIGCD 835, now licensed to Presto) from his 2017-19 live recordings. Timing at 11:51 to Douglas’ 10:48, Williams brings more focus on lyricism than drama, on melody than rhythm. Williams’ poise in pointing the apex of the opening first theme male responses is magical, but you become very aware of emphatic control. Williams’ treatment of the molto espress passages is less distinctive than that of Douglas. Williams’ coda attends more to its soft and mysterious aspects, with a climax of iciness rather than Douglas’ fire.

The Andante, poco mosso second movement begins as a ‘soprano descant’ of sixteen continuous Gs, the melody, in the bass and then alto parts, in turn echoed by the ‘soprano’, who then finds a wider range of melodic development in the second strain (tr. 2, 0:43). This all requires great deftness of articulation which Douglas achieves. The imperative to develop the melody continues and you realize here’s a movement of variations. The first (2:07) has the melody in soprano descant over alto Gs with a bass counterpoint of equal interest. Variation 2 (4:02) is a dazzling coloratura display in demisemiquavers. The C minor Variation 3 (5:45) reinstates the alto Gs with an insistent rising then falling phrase surrounding them in soprano and bass. Its loud second strain repeats and second part bring a passion not heard before and delivered with full force by Douglas. Variation 4 (7:41) propels running demisemiquavers, a whirligig of dizzying instability. Variation 5 (9:39) has a gently valedictory feel in triplets in semiquavers. Douglas makes it a happy, companionable piece in which recurring clouds are always brushed aside by the returning Gs.

Williams, timing at 12:20 to Douglas’ 13:05, emphasises the poco mosso resulting in a retrospective, 18th century manner, the theme’s presentation more relaxed and lightly ornamented. His Variation 1 asserts the melody more. His Variation 2 is daintier, his Variation 3 markedly more reflective, preferring clear contrasts of tone and dynamics rather than Douglas’ passion. Williams’ Variation 4 is lightly dazzling. He makes Variation 5 a sublimely smooth denouement.

Douglas displays the energy and turbulence of the Allegro vivace Scherzo, from p and crescendo to ff in the 5 seconds of its opening phrase with no stinting the impact. The development (tr. 3, 0:48) has a rising phrase which wraps things up triumphantly (1:04), then to reach a beauteously sad version (1:18) before everything continues in flux. Schubert’s solution is an emphatically terse triumphant version. Immediately in the slightly slower Trio (3:32) Schubert and Douglas offer an alternative perspective: a world dwelling on poetic beauty where the melody is similar but openness of treatment utterly different. Yet in the second part (4:31) Douglas emphasises the purposive accents counterbalancing the earlier idealized calm, saying ‘We can live in both worlds.’
Williams goes for more melodic than dramatic emphasis. I like his more marked reflection in the development and taking Schubert’s solution more brightly in its stride. His easier-going Trio is dreamier, the marriage of two worlds thereby happier. Douglas reveals more searching and angst.

The Allegro vivace finale is a rondo, a jumble and jungle in dramatic propulsion. There are two main elements. First, the lyrical opening pp legato, a stream-of-consciousness of running quavers over a steady progression of crotchets. Second, a loud, bullish variation of the crotchets’ material (tr. 4, 0:24), introducing sforzandos and fanfares. Soon the two elements are presented in close alternation and then outright combat (0:58) in which Douglas revels. Sometimes the quieter style prevails (1:25), followed by a sequence of seven crashing chords (1:40). A new, welcome phase is the melodic material in upper register in octaves (2:20), carillon like. The bullish material reaches ff tension (2:59) against which the quaver runs needs be heroically steely. Douglas catches this interplay rivetingly. After the second sequence of crashing chords come soft running quavers when an accelerando Douglas doesn’t force brings the coda (4:39), a slightly faster first element in upper register, then ff stratospheric modified second one with decrescendo into the opening innocence, demolished by two final crashing chords.

Williams offers quieter, more melodious first material and more majestic, orderly second. His two elements belong together more, both having their say rather than embattled.

Impromptu No 1 in F minor, the first of Schubert’s second set of four, Allegro moderato has for haunting centre an appassionato third section (tr. 5, 2:55), an intimate duet, the lady rhapsodising, the man consoling, its second part beginning more passionate then magically resolving, as if the couple agree to cling to the remembered loving aspects of their relationship. Douglas conveys this movingly, especially in the return when the lady moves from soprano to coloratura register and the coda makes explicit a sad farewell. The opening section introduction is the workaday business of male impetuous command and female mellifluous reflection, gaining cogency only to be beaten down, yet followed unexpectedly by a tender second section theme of hope (1:48).

Impromptu No 2 in A-flat, Allegretto is well-known for its benevolent main theme and Douglas lovingly savours every note while still maintaining sufficient flow. Schubert’s skill is in creating enough contrast to make you welcome this theme’s return: after the more fervent, climactic second strain and sudden freedom of the soft running quavers in triplets of the second section Trio (tr. 6, 4:03) and turbulence of its loud second part which Douglas makes a sufficient aberration for you to cherish more the main theme’s return. The final time he seems to linger just a shade more in gratitude before marking the increscent gravity of the brief coda.

Impromptu No 3 in B-flat, Andante, is a theme and variations. The theme appears more smoothly as Entr’acte 3 of the Rosamunde incidental music (1823) and more sedately opening the Andante of the String Quartet in A minor (1824). This Impromptu version has a bright na´vetÚ bursting with joy and beefier second strain with ornamentation of growing complexity which Douglas enjoys presenting as hurdles just about surmounted. In Variation 1 (tr. 7, 1:57) the theme is cast in dotted-quaver-plus-semiquaver presentation over bubbling running semiquavers which gives it a gauzily reflective quality. In Variation 2 (3:40) the theme’s opening phrase turns Gershwinesque. Variation 3 (5:21) is sudden tragedy in B flat minor, notably the searingly sad soprano arioso. Variation 4 (7:43) brings G flat major in mellifluous semiquaver runs then dazzling with that characteristically Schubertian pearly octave higher tessitura of the second part. Variation 5 (9:25) returns to B flat major with Douglas’ enchanting whirligig of a dance in semiquavers.

Impromptu No 4 in F minor, Allegro scherzando, is decidedly more impish, Douglas relishing its tricksy rhythms and appoggiaturas, three-quaver clusters pounding with a central octave leap and ending with a codetta of four screams in semiquavers. The central section (tr. 8, 1:24) is more dance sequence than trio, a legato swirl of varying mood with a second part, con delicatezza (1:58), more animated, evolving to semiquaver runs, up and down in both hands (2:45), maybe the inspiration for Saint-Saӫns’ Pianists in his Carnival of the animals. In the coda (5:27) the three-quaver motif is distilled in the right-hand over portentous bell-like sustained notes in the left suggesting doom. Its pi¨ presto peroration (6:14) Douglas makes a race to leap over the cliff.

Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s well-known song Ave Maria makes a great encore. It’s Lento assai with accompaniment of running semiquavers in soprano and alto above the song and tenor and bass below, p dolce molto espressivo e legato. The song, in rich mezzo register, is marked sempre marcato ed espressivo and Douglas makes it lovingly considered without ever seeming forced. When the second strain comes (tr. 9, 1:28) the increasing tension is enhanced by higher tessitura in upper and lower accompaniment. The return of the opening is then a contrasted sotto voce (2:11) with creamier accompaniment with its own emotive swelling and ebbing. The third return of the opening has a more sparkling, extravagant accompaniment in demisemiquavers dolciss, delicatamente (2:50) and the song’s climax is finely judged by Douglas with a mix of power and reserve. The fourth return of the opening (4:33) has a leggieriss. accompaniment in hemidemisemiquavers, showboat time, but what Liszt and Douglas then show with the swelling and ebbing of the dynamics is the emotive power of the accompaniment, like a crowd still fervent after the song.
Michael Greenhalgh

Published: November 29, 2022

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