Schubert: Four Impromptus

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Zig Zag
WORKS: Four Impromptus, D899; Four Impromptus, D935
PERFORMER: Alexei Lubimov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ZZT 100102

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The Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov is nothing if not a perfectionist, and he searched long and hard (over four years, in fact) to find historical instruments that would satisfy his requirements in these pieces.

His choice eventually fell on a piano of 1810 by Mathias Müller (one of the inventors of the upright piano) for Schubert’s first Book of Impromptus, and a piano of 1830 by the lesser-known maker Joseph Schantz for the second Book. Both instruments are capable of subtle gradations of colour, and it’s worth putting up with the occasional creak from the keyboard action, or perhaps the pedals, for the sake of the beauty of tone Lubimov coaxes from them.

It would be hard, for instance, to imagine a warmer or more lyrical performance of the song without words that forms the penultimate piece from the D899 collection; or a smoother and more delicate account of the pianissimo first variation on the Rosamunde theme in Impromptu No. 3 from D935. (Anyone who’s tried playing those variations themselves will know how hard that is to bring off.) 

Lubimov has opted to play the outer sections of the Allegretto second piece of D935 with the so-called moderator pedal, which interposes a piece of cloth between hammers and strings, to produce a veiled sound.

The tone-quality is well suited to the start of pianissimo theme itself, though it makes its more forceful second half sound curiously muted. It’s possible, too, to feel that Lubimov makes a meal out of the characteristically Schubertian turn from minor to major in the opening number of the D899 set.

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But this is altogether a beautiful recital by a master-pianist, and while there’s no shortage of fine recordings of these famous pieces, there has been none in my experience to equal Lubimov on instruments of Schubert’s day. Misha Donat