Schubert: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

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WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
PERFORMER: Valery Afanassiev (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 1682 Reissue (1986)
Be warned: the first two movements of Schubert’s last Piano Sonata in this recording are weird. Valery Afanassiev – who writes novels as well as playing the piano in an unusual way – was asked to play the work when some other musicians cancelled a date at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival in 1985. Well, Kremer likes mavericks, and in a way there’s a refreshing sincerity here, subversive as it is. Joachim Kaiser’s review in the Süddeutscher Zeitung is reproduced in the booklet, and since he referred to Richter’s famous, or notorious, recording of the Seventies, let’s take that as our benchmark, instead of the recording by Stephen Kovacevich, which is the one I really admire and consider the most satisfying (see November issue). Whereas Richter transfixes us with a stoically steady tempo in the first movement, Afanassiev puts the music under a microscope, taking immense licence with timing, expanding pauses and prolonging trills, which are as murky as a puddle. The odd thing is, you lose track of time, and 23 minutes seem quite short. He’s slow in the second movement, too; at first it evoked Schubert’s Winterreise, but then it seemed more like a deep sleep. The scherzo and final movement are both played in a comparatively orthodox way, at quite usual tempi. On a technical level Afanassiev is fallible – a long way from Mitsuko Uchida’s exquisite measurement of every nuance – and his loose synchronising of hands, spread chords and unexpected balancing of strands in the texture do not always seem deliberate. Recommended only to the curious. Adrian Jack