Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Schubert D. 959 Recording Survey - First Third

Maybe it's because I'm a violinist, but I generally prefer the rambling songfulness of the Schubert sonatas to the more percussive tempestuousness of Beethoven's. There are plenty of wonderful Beethoven sonatas, and perhaps as an achievement they're even more astonishing (though imagine had Schubert lived to 56 like Beethoven). But whether it's the finest of Schubert or the finest of Beethoven, what I particularly love is the rambling unplannedness of it, the sense of chaos standing at the door, ready to confront the order of a proper piece of classical music - the sense that anything at any moment can happen with complete unpredictability. They're forerunners of later masters of the unplanned like Mussorgsky, Janacek, Mahler - musicians who have things to say too urgent to be contained by form. 

But whereas the urgency of these other composers explodes, Schubert implodes, never allowing the depth of his emotion to reach past his natural reserve, and perhaps therefore more meaningful in the hauntingness of what his particular chaos expresses. Everything sounds no more urgent than a simple conversation with a friend in a normal tone of voice, but as it is with one's closest friends, the conversation can hint at unfathomable depths of chaos and melancholy and turmoil and violence, the visceralness of which is utterly left to the imagination to convey. 

Andsnes: As impressive technically as it's unimpressive musically. Mechanical, highly strung, senselessly quick, gets dynamics soft enough at times, but without any sense of meaning. For the soft passages he gets a slight bit of credit, but this is un-Schubertian in every sense. D

Arrau: Arrau's gonna Arrau - Schubert as late Beethoven. He has the most gorgeous and full sound, with enough freedom within the beat to give every note and chord its own sense of expression, and if there isn't enough freedom within the beat he simply stretches the rhythm like elastic. But the ability to let music speak for itself is not something he ever allows. Every musical action he takes is tied to the harmonic tension rather than the melody or rhythm. How can a great musician from Latin America have so little feel for dance rhythm? Even so, tying himself so tightly to the harmonic tension does enable the musical paragraphs to flow like a river - sometimes you really do get the feel of Schubert's unimpeded melodic conversation with the listener, only for Arrau to break up the melody to make another harmonic/philosophical point. It's masterly music making of a type, it's just not Schubert. B-

Ashkenazy: I really want to dislike this Pianistic with a Capital P Performance. It's so utterly direct and brazen, and yet its no bullshit perspective allows some real Schubert to peak through better than many self consciously 'deeper' performances which eschew the pianist. It still sounds like Ashkenazy's playing Chopin or Liszt, but at least Ashkenazy shows how Schubert paved the way forward for the romantic piano. Ashkenazy's straightforwardness is a reasonably secure guide through the work. are some truly beautiful moments. The forte passages, unlike, say, Barenboim's, are in their proper place and don't disrupt the phrasing of those beautiful soft passages with inappropriate accents. B

Badura-Skoda: The technique is shaky, unsteady rhythms with an occasional dropped note in that manner that tells you he doesn't have complete command of the keyboard. And it doesn't matter a whit, if anything, it only adds to the expressive masterliness on display. This is an artist who understands the natural, utterly artless melodic conversation of Schubert. On the other hand.... some art to shade the piano more quietly and steady the tempi would make the impact more beautiful, but perhaps that's quibbling. Schubert as the best piano teacher you ever had would play it. A-

Barenboim: Danny is just not one of nature's Schubertians. Maybe he's too extraverted a person, or his fingers are too fat, or he's too enamored of Beethoven to value what makes Music's Poet distinct from Music's Titan. He's a great enough musician that surely he's on intimate terms with Schubertia, he gives us plenty of glimpses of Schubertland in those gorgeous pianissimo passages, only to yank us away with the kind of mannered fortissimos and accents that register all the more brutally for having conjured Schubertia so well. A Schubert accent is not a Beethoven accent, Schubert writes accents to remind you of the rise and fall of the phrase that a routine musician wouldn't perceive on his own. Danny should know better. C+

Bilson: The modern piano presents inordinate problems in Schubert that only Brendel and Bolet seem even aware of. The sonic glare of the upper register overwhelms the sonority of the bass, the overwhelming fortes stand in direct conflict with Schubertian songfulness, the sustained tone of the modern grand creates a muddle in pianissimo passages that can kill momentum. Unfortunately, Bilson takes a period fortepiano, and tries to make it sound like a modern grand. In his hands, Schubert is Beethoven, an imitation Appassionata trying to burst the limitations of period pianos at the seams. Period pianos give you so many unfamiliar and haunting colors that have barely yet been experimented with. There are isolated moments when Bilson seems to try, such as a central episode in the slow movement that for once feels properly avant-garde (I wonder if the proper effect can only be achieved on a period piano...). One does have a good sense of the chaos beyond the face of the deep, but Bilson tries to uncover it, and therefore turns it into something far more akin to Beethoven or Liszt at their most virtuosic, an exhbitionism that has no place in Schubert. For all his virtues, it still feels like is an utterly wasted opportunity. As so often with the period movement, players who can't distinguish themselves with normal instruments distinguish themselves more by the instrument they play than by their insights, and waste the golden opportunity of exploring the new richness available from a fascinating instrument. C

Bolet: This aristocratic supervirtuoso gives, as he always does, an immaculately tasteful performance, elegant, and quite soulful, but speaks the music with a too seductive Chopin accent. Too much emphasis on melody (which, of course, Schubert has even more accumen for than Chopin), but too little fragility, too little harmonic emphasis, too little introversion, too much organization, too much confidence. If Ashkenazy calls to mind virtuoso Chopinists of old like Hoffmann and Horowitz, then Bolet calls to mind much more lyrical Chopinists of old like Cortot and Cherkassky and... Bolet... Contrasts are played down as they must be in Schubert, but so are the pianos and pianissimos, which never truly get quiet. The only performance of the second movement in which the stormy central section feels of a piece with the rest of it, which perhaps misses the point entirely. It always dances around the edges of Schubert-land, making us aware of it, but never quite bringing us into its center except in the Scherzo, which Bolet brings the feel of the Austrian Landler dance as few do. Arrau and Barenboim disfigure it by giving it more supposed depth by distending the rhythms, not so Bolet, who truly understands what it is: a folk dance for the Angels. But it stays on focus so beautifully, so securely bring us Schubert's lyricism, even if he never quite articulates what the lyricism expresses. B+

Brendel: Before he was born, God brought Schubert to Brendel and lo He said unto them, "You shall be put upon earth to play Schubert. Your Mozart and Beethoven will be perceptive but a bit diffident, your Liszt will mostly miss the point entirely, and you'll be too high minded to play much of anything else, but your introversion, your inclination to poetry, the biltung and songfulness and dance rhythms you will have in your marrow, will make you the Schubertian for all time. A shame you won't sing or play a string instrument or conduct ..." What truly amazes about Brendel is not only his touch and his poetically introverted spirit, but the freedom with which he plays. Barenboim and Arrau try to stretch the music about like taffy, but only Brendel has the unreplicable secret of how to do it. Even the central section of the slow movement feels 'right.' It's a tempestuous interruption, but not a Lisztian virtuoso display. The scherzo has Bolet's dance feel, but while other pianists distend the dance, Brendel brings character that feel like embellishments - more complicated dance moves perhaps. Brendel was born for Schubert as much as Gould for Bach or Koscis for Bartok. Every note has meaning, every shading, every forte is just loud enough for proper contrast, but not so loud as to intrude upon every soft passage, which casts a spell that, whether in the studio or live, Brendel seems incapable of breaking no matter how different his recordings from performance to performance. A+

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