Schubert: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960; Twelve German Dances, D790

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960; Twelve German Dances, D790
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 55359 2 DDD
Paul Badura-Skoda’s 1825 Graf piano, used in this ninth disc of his period-instrument Schubert series, is in poor condition and he has problems playing the simplest scale passages evenly. As if to compensate, his interpretations are fussy and short-sighted; although he achieves quite dramatic changes of tone-colour, they sometimes sound as if he has switched to a different instrument altogether and disrupt the music’s unity.

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In the A major Sonata of c1819, the young German pianist Michael Endres achieves much smoother continuity and a longer sense of line on a modern piano. He is a pianist to watch out for; his playing is full of sensitive details, beautifully modulated and disciplined by a strong sense of form. He also dares to be simple, as in the middle movement of the A major Sonata.

Kovacevich has sometimes sounded as if he were searching but not always finding, and in the dances on his disc he still seems inordinately precious. But in the B flat Sonata he surpasses himself. The dramatic outbursts in the finale are almost apocalyptic, while his soft cantabile is spellbinding. The interpretation is very ambitious, yet without undue sense of strain, and the recording – though a bit distant for some tastes – is richly sonorous.

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András Schiff’s commanding series of Schubert’s sonatas is also spoilt by putting the microphones too far away from the instrument. Schiff has a very precise sense of Schubert’s style in the context of its period; he stresses its budding Romanticism less than its Classical background. If he is less in awe of the spiritual dimension of Schubert’s last Sonata than Kovacevich, his interpretation is equally impressive, and some people may prefer its sense of discretion.