WORKS: Piano Sonata in A minor, D537; Piano Sonata in A minor, D784; Fantasy in C, D760 (Wanderer)
PERFORMER: Ronald Smith (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 5568
‘His towering virtuosity is an abiding miracle’, runs the booklet eulogy to Ronald Smith. So it may have been back in the Seventies, when he made his celebrated Alkan recordings. But judging by this Wanderer Fantasy – the one Schubert piano work where a measure of virtuosity is a sine qua non – his technical control is now seriously diminished. Smith gets through the notes – just. But the effect is laboured, with snatched upbeats, blurred runs and a constricted range of colour and dynamics. The slow movement plods, seemingly imprisoned by the bar-line; and the barnstorming fugal finale threatens to become a scramble, with lumpy articulation of the obsessive dactylic rhythms and too much fudging in the send-off.
Smith is hardly more alluring in the two A minor sonatas, both recorded back in 1986. His tone and touch are ordinary, lyrical melodies fail to sing or soar and what tension there is in the playing tends to sag whenever the dynamic level drops below forte. Nor does the clangy, over-reverberant recording do Smith any favours. Enough said. For his combination of poise, visionary poetry and torrential splendour, Pollini (1973 vintage), still leads the field in the Wanderer. In the sonatas, Kempff, Schiff, Brendel and Uchida – to name but four – are all in a different class from Smith, though my own first choice in D784 is the young Ashkenazy, who embraces the music’s anguish and precarious lyricism with the urgency of first discovery. Richard Wigmore