Schubert: Divertissement à l’hongroise, D818; Variations on an Original Theme, D813; Fantasy in F minor, D940

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Divertissement à l’hongroise, D818; Variations on an Original Theme, D813; Fantasy in F minor, D940
PERFORMER: Alexandre Tharaud, Zhu Xiao-Mei (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901773
Yes, I know reviewers shouldn’t let themselves be prejudiced by cover-blurb. But when I saw Schubert’s wonderful F minor Fantasy described on the back of this disc as ‘that gloomy product of his last year’ my heart began to sink, and Alexandre Tharaud and Zhu Xiao-Mei’s performance never quite lifted it. Dark vistas open up in the Fantasy, but it can also be remarkably buoyant, even exultant in a strange, edgy kind of way – listen to Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu on Sony if that sounds bizarre. Along with elegance, precision and depth of feeling, they show an unusual sensitivity to the emotional complexity of so much later Schubert: joyous one moment, bleak the next, and sometimes – eerily – both at once.

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Tharaud and Zhu do show an appreciation of Schubert’s ambiguous charm in the Divertissement à l’hongroise, and in the Variations there are moments of refined poetry. But they start the Fantasy as if determined to show that this is indeed ‘late’ Schubert, the spiritual emptiness of the great song cycle Winterreise only just round the next bend. I’m sure pathos was intended, but for me it’s just heavy. And good as the Divertissement is, it’s Andreas Staier and Alexei Lubimov at the fortepiano who bring a real sense of adventure – that, perhaps above all else, is what eludes Tharaud and Zhu. Stephen Johnson