Thursday, September 8, 2016

Schubert D. 959 - A Recording Survey: First Two-Thirds

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. 

Leif Ove 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

Claudio 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-

Vladimir Ashkenazy: I really want to dislike this finger-jockish 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 virtuoso bravura. 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-

Paul 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-

Daniel 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+

Malcolm 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

Jorge 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+

Alfred Brendel: Before he was born, God brought Schubert to Brendel and lo he said unto them, "Brendel 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+

Christoph Eschenbach: From 1974. I'm sure he would play this very differently today - much more like Arrau did. It's a bit too steely and Beethovenish, but it works because it's still big-hearted and affectionate like a dog's slobbery kiss. B-

Annie Fischer: Stunningly brutalizing, technically slovenly in a manner that wouldn't draw attention to itself if the musicmaking were more sensitive. F

Richard Goode: The innate rigor and logic of Goode is his greatest strength and ultimately his limitation. Most pianists give us Schubert as Beethoven, Goode gives us Schubert as Bach. No pedal but a subtle one, a deliberately brittle, unsustained tone (no doubt learned from his great mentor, Rudolf Serkin). It's all a little too dry, and yet, perhaps because of the lack of affect, the Schubertian beauty, the rise and fall of the phrase, the melodic conversation, absolutely comes through, even if it's a conversation with a slightly too literal-minded individual. The dynamic shading Goode imparts is truly something to behold. Goode's severity can't help but detract from the piece's expressive potential, in the scherzo you feel as though the piece might snap in half if he wounds the interpretation any tighter than it is, but it holds Schubert together in a way few can. Everything rings true with a poetry so precise it almost seems mathematical. A-

Wilhelm Kempff: Kempff is an artist who doesn't interpret. He never strives for effects, he simply plays and trusts the music and his natural musical judgement to do the work for him. Is there a composer in which that is a greater strength than in Schubert? His playing neither strives for the distant spiritual planes of Brendel nor achieves them, he simply seems to chase an intimate spiritual poetry with playing more suited for a living room conversation than a concert hall declamation. Phrasing seems to be occurring to him uttelry in the moment, and there is plenty in this interpretation I don't quite approve of, but if he misses a few Schubertian nuances, if certain accents break the spell, who cares? He hears the piece in such long range that he knows he can incorporate the mistake into an interpretation that will win us back in a few seconds. His technique is always secure but never breathtaking, his rubato never exceeds the unimpeded naturalness of the musical flow, his playing almost never gets quiet enough to be truly breathtaking (except in the trio of the Scherzo), nor does he need to take our breath away. Brendel plays Schubert like a god, Kempff plays him like a human. A

Paul Lewis: A performance at once so perceptive that you marvel at it, and yet so calculating that you can't stop hearing the gears that turn to make it possible. Lewis's playing is absolutely marvelous, and yet hearing it is like hearing a schematic. You know precisely what he wants to point up speeding up in one passage and slowing down in another. Artifice and Schubert are antithetical, which is a shame because so much of what Lewis brings us is straight from Schubertland. B+ 

Radu Lupu: Moreso even than Brendel or Kempff or Schnabel, Radu Lupu is associated with Schubert above all other pianists. Is it deserved? Well, I've never heard his Schubert live, but his playing has always been a thing of wonder in so many ways. He is a magnetic artist, one of those artists whose uniqueness has absolutely indefinable magnetism: Cortot, Friedman, Edwin Fischer, Gieseking, Yudina, Horowitz, Cherkassky, Richter, Lipatti, Michelangeli, Cziffra, Gulda, Gould, Ogdon, Argerich, Sokolov, Pletnev, Pogolerich; these are more than pianists or musicians, these are unique artists whose charisma defies criticism. They make interpretations work that never should work, there's plenty in their work to criticize, but when it works, what would be the point of criticism?  While Lupu's sloppiness in later years became a bit better known, in this 1980's performance he was clearly a virtuoso who had infinite command of the keyboard and harnessed that infinity toward a Schubert of perfection. Stepping into the first statement of the Andantino, you hear a celestial music box so distant that it seems to emanate from one room past the heavens themselves. Soft passage after soft passage is so perfect that it seems plucked from an aeolian harp, which makes it tragic how Lupu slips every single forte passage back into percussive and highly-strung Hammerklavier-land which his technique clearly allows him to venture unimpeded. It is odd to criticize Lupu, the most famously introverted of pianists, of too much Liszt-like extraversion, but it's there for anyone to hear. It's, of course, unmistakable why Lupu is known as probably the greatest Schubertian pianist of them all, but you'll have to permit me a slight dissenting voice on that question. What is unquestionable though is that Lupu's Schubert is a thing of unique beauty, more Lupu than Schubert, but not much less beautiful for being so. A-

Murray Perahia: One day I shall reconcile myself to the guilt I feel at my dislike for Perahia's performances. The cold lack of variety you get from other assembly lined 'high minded pianists' like Brendel, Lupu, Uchida, Schiff, Ax, Goode, Serkin, Andsnes, Lewis, Fellner, Biss, can certainly grate. Other pianists have huge repertoire and overwhelming personality in everything they play, and sometimes these pianists do too (obviously Lupu particularly in his own way), but something as profane as personality would violate the sensibilities of these priests of music. There is a specific type of pianist who wears his or her modesty with a Capital M, and fills their recitals with little but Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, with a some Bach or Brahms thrown in occasionally to spice things up - or Schumann if they're feeling particularly adventurous. If there's Liszt or Chopin, it's to make a point about their more 'musicianly' qualities which crasser pianists ignore, and therefore antithetical to the spirit of these two ultimate piano composers. There's nothing Russian in their concerts, there's rarely even any Debussy or Ravel, and an extreme paucity of 20th century music, let alone 21st... Music is a temple to them, and wonders of the wider world pass them by completely. They're possessed of musical sensibilities so fine that no idea can violate them, and therefore nothing learned from their performances, no new insights, just high-minded perfection without any trace of kitsch, which might ultimately be the most kitschy quality of all. But of all those high-minded pianists, there is none quite so gratingly 'high-minded' as Perahia, who has never given a single performance with a single phrase which could possibly be construed as being in questionable taste. He's the perfect product of America's A-list musical education, with pedigrees of studying with Serkin and Schneider and Casals and Horszowski, and has never given a performance that could disappoint such fine teachers. He is, in a word, the ultimate 'High Priest of the Piano', and has rarely given a performance with so much as an interesting idea in it. D

Maurizio Pollini: Pollini is another Priest of the Piano, but at least he's a more interesting, heretical priest with an enormous repertoire and always up for a real challenge. Pollini is another Schubertian praised to the skies, but to me, he doesn't really understand Schubert. Talk about a pianist who mistakes Schubert for Beethoven... I'm not sure anybody who'd come upon this performance on the radio would ever entertain the idea that this work could be by anybody but Beethoven. Schubert for Pollini is a performance, not a conversation, more akin to a Beethoven or Haydn monologue than to Schubertian sharing. It's a series of, admittedly, impressive rhetorical gestures in which he imposes a conception upon the music while rarely exposing himself to the vulnerability that great Schubert, perhaps even great musicmaking, requires of the musician. It is impressive, it is occasionally moving in soft passages when Pollini gets out of the way, it is also shallow, skimming the surface of the music's compassion without listening to what the music is begging of him. B-

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