Schubert: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960; Klavierstücke, D946

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960; Klavierstücke, D946
PERFORMER: Alain Planès (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901658
Artur Schnabel said he was only interested in music that was better than it could ever be played. That’s certainly true of Schubert’s last Sonata, one of many works Schnabel did a lot to establish in the concert repertoire. Though technically simple, it exposes weaknesses in the best-equipped pianist. Just listen to the trills in the bass, or the simple yet treacherous figuration of the accompaniments. Then do the silences seem significant, or are they merely negative? And ultimately, if time drags, or you feel nervous during this spacious music, the performance is wanting.

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Time certainly drags in the long stretches of the unofficial ‘Impromptus’ as Alain Planès plays them, because his characterisation is mousy. He’s a bit timid in the Sonata, too, which tells, occasionally, in a slightly feeble, uneven touch. But he is unfussy, and good on line and shading, taking the orthodox, serene view of the first movement. Actually, there are darker elements here – as so often in Schubert – which are revealed in a recent live recording by Fou Ts’ong on Meridian. I find Brendel pernickety and didactic, András Schiff mannered (it seems ridiculous to loosen the synchronisation of hands in the opening theme), and the much-fêted Maria João Pires pretty-pretty. Schnabel and Clara Haskil are of great musical and historic interest, but their recordings are faded. More recently, Clifford Curzon and Annie Fischer left deeply felt if pianistically fallible recordings. Bang up to date, Mitsuko Uchida combines austere idealism with superb control, a tremendous achievement. But surely, Stephen Kovacevich is unsurpassed for variety of colour and expressive detail, while deeply secure of the longer view. I find every note gripping (though I wish he didn’t begin and end trills so explicitly), and he has that luminous singing tone quality associated with Schubert above all composers. Adrian Jack