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Thread: A Trio of Schubert Solo Piano Music Sets

  1. #1
    Captain of Water Music
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    A Trio of Schubert Solo Piano Music Sets

    Earlier this year I figured I needed to listen to more Schubert. Specifically the solo piano works. More particularly the sonatas, though the other works were welcome. What I was looking for was a nice sample of various works performed by the same artist to get a grasp of how the artist handles Schubert’s music overall. Complete sets weren’t (and aren’t) necessary, I just wanted more than a couple sonatas. (Of course, “complete” sets in Schubert are illusory given all the fragments.) I already have a number of sets, but surely more would be good I reasoned. Whom to choose? There isn’t anywhere the same variety as with Beethoven, but choices need to be made. For no specific reasons, I ended up getting sets by Christian Zacharias, Anton Kuerti, and Alfred Brendel.

    Alfred Brendel’s set is the “weakest” of the three, but nonetheless is very good, and much better than I thought it would be. His playing is dry and borders on the clinical at times, but he manages to really bring out the best in some works. He’s at his least compelling when lyricism is at a premium, and he’s at his best when rigorous attention to form is most important. (No surprises there.) So, one gets Impromptus of uncommon clarity and forthrightness and chilliness alongside Moments Musicaux of hardened seriousness of purpose. Where Brendel really shines is in some of the bigger works. His D845, D958, and D960 (as well as a few other works) are all characterized by an intensity, a nervous energy that almost unsettles at times. The D845 has snap and drive and throughout that comes close to Pollini and Gulda in overall of achievement, even if those pianists play with rather more assurance. The later sonatas display more anger than is often the case, especially in D960, and while I can’t say that Brendel’s playing is as mellifluous as I generally like here, it’s better than I expected. Alas, he omits the repeat in the opening movement of the B flat, a big issue for me. (I need that repeat.) The pinnacle of this set, though, is surely the D959 sonata. I was rather surprised at how good it is; Brendel delivers one of the very best readings I’ve heard. Indeed, I dare to say it is great. It is a bit aloof, to be sure, but his austere tone, unflinching forward drive, and absolute mastery of overall arc of the piece are breathtaking. Seriously. From Brendel. It is deadly serious stuff, with every aspect falling into line, and with a level of engagement I often find a bit lacking from this source. A pleasant surprise.

    Better is Anton Kuerti’s set. Kuerti’s style is similar to Brendel’s in that his tone isn’t especially attractive and lyrical playing isn’t his greatest strength – at least usually. His playing is lean, emphasizing staccato over legato much of the time, and it’s unusually flexible rhythmically. His dynamic shading is second to none, as I expect from this pianist. The strange thing is that his most pronounced excesses from his not too much older Beethoven cycle never crosses over into this music. (Different composers require different approaches of course.) Kuerti is definitely at his best in the less lyrical, more overtly virtuosic pieces, and he delivers knock-out readings of the D850 sonata and the Wanderer Fantasy. His articulation is superb, his control sublime, and his drive compelling. He plays around with tempi a lot, but here he keeps things moving forward full speed ahead. The D845 comes off superbly well, with the knottiest passages handled with ease, and with a sublime, stretched out Andante. His Impromptus are surprisingly effective, really among the better recordings I’ve heard, with real depth and feeling. (Alas, the final Impromptu from D899 had data errors so I was only able to listen to about half of it.) Somewhat surprisingly given his lean style, the D664 comes off magnificently well, sounding unyieldingly beautiful pretty much from start to finish. The late sonatas do miss the mark slightly, lacking the ideal amount of lyricism, though all but the D960 have enough drive to them. The D960 flounders a bit in the opening movement. Kuerti takes the repeat, but he plays around with the already too slow overall tempo just a bit too much. A pleasanter surprise.

    That leaves Christian Zacharias’ set, which is more difficult to describe. His style is more fluid, more tonally beautiful, more lyrical, and ultimately more personal than even Kuerti’s. Many of the sonatas take on a certain sameness, much as in Kempff’s cycle, but the level of playing and the overall effect are simply wonderful. It’s almost impossible for me to pick favorites, or to point out glaring weaknesses. Okay, sure, his D784 doesn’t possess the same darkness and intensity of other readings; and his D845 and D850 are more fluid than most, taking away some of the edge one might want; and the last sonatas don’t achieve metaphysical profundity on the same level as Kovacevich or Richter. But that’s not what Zacharias is all about. First and foremost, it seems, his Schubert must sing. And how gloriously it sings! One could almost think of the recordings as all having a “song without words” style, but that wouldn’t really work. Everything Zacharias plays (or more accurately, everything I’ve heard him play) is decidedly pianistic, by which I mean he exploits the capabilities of the piano, and his penchant for playing with tempi and dynamics, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, work against that style. Yet it still sings. Zacharias’ style is definitely more superficial, more about beauty than depth, and more about demonstrating what the piano can do than about some definite “meaning” to the music. What’s strange for me is that I tend to prefer the heavier, more serious approach, yet when listening to Zacharias that preference melts away. For instance, even admitting a comparative superficiality, the opening movement of the great B-flat sonata sounds desolate enough, with chilling bass trills, and the second movement is dark and morose. As searing as Kovacevich? Nope. Doesn’t need to be. I’ve spun the cycle three times and have gone back over some individual sonatas several more times, and each time I listen I hear each piece afresh. What more could I want? Zacharias joins Kempff, Endres, Kovacevich, and Richter as my preferred Schubert interpreters, though some (or many) may not like his style as much.

    Three new sets and not one clunker. I was even surprised at the overall high quality of Brendel’s set, a relief given the price. For me the Schubert set is possibly the best thing he’s done. The same may almost be true for Kuerti, though he does have one of the best sets of Brahms concertos out there, so it’s a tougher call. Zacharias is different. His Mozart sonatas (except the last movement of K331 – a colossal misfire), his Scarlatti (both EMI and MDG), his Schumann Piano Concerto, his LvB Op 10 sonatas and early concertos, and now his Schubert: all are simply amazing. Well, at least I’m susceptible to his style; not everyone will be. What do I do for more Schubert now . . .

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
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    Well i share your admiration for Zacharias though i never heard any of those performances you mentioned.I think of his Beethoven piano concerti recordings very highly.

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