Schubert: Impromptus/Piano Sonata

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ALBUM TITLE: Schubert: Impromptus/Piano Sonata
WORKS: Four impromptus, D899; Piano Sonata in A, D664; Allegretto in C minor, D915; Hungarian Melody in B minor, D817
PERFORMER: See Siang Wong
CATALOGUE NO: 88765445962


I had listened for quite a while to See Siang Wong’s CD, wondering why it wasn’t the Schubert we are accustomed to, before the penny dropped: See Siang Wong is better known as an accompanist than as a soloist, and therein lies the key to his curiously unassuming – but in no way under-characterised – style. And the liner-note interview underlines the point: in it, Wong talks about the ‘missing’ text in a solo instrumental piece, and about the need for the player to compensate for this through artistry. In his view, the first and third Impromptus are written like stories, and he has striven to reflect that in his voicing.

The opening Allegretto, which was written on the departure for military service of Schubert’s friend Ferdinand Walcher, has a wistful candour which leads naturally into the relaxed lyricism of the first Impromptu. In this pianist’s hands, the second becomes a bright stream of right-hand melody, with bags of power in the declamatory middle section; the third is marked by emotional restraint, and the fourth by a cleanly focused fieriness. The first movement of the Sonata in A major alternates between gravity and gossamer lightness, the second is characterised by glowing tenderness, and the finale by an easy flow. The German dance and the Hungarian melody which bookend this Sonata keep the prevailing mood light and graceful: Wong’s Schubert is a convivial creature, creating beauty without the usual accompanying demons. The darker undertones in this Schubertiad never take over the show.

Rudolf Buchbinder has had 30 more years than Wong to ponder Schubert’s Op. 90 Impromptus, and his recording reflects it. For all its surface charm, Wong’s performance seems two-dimensional in comparison with Buchbinder’s, which has a rare depth and richness of implication. After a thunderous octave chord, the melody of the first Impromptu emerges with what seems like uncertainty, the tempo slightly faltering as the individual notes are sounded; only when the theme is filled out with harmony does the lyrical journey begin. The touch is delicate, and the timbre beautiful, as the variations unfold. The walking-bass variation is vividly characterised, as is the following one with its declamatory chords. What Buchbinder is after, with his many kinds of cantabile, is the drama of Schubert’s Lieder: the third Impromptu becomes a dialogue between two human voices, one pleading and the other urging. And within the simple-seeming framework of the Fourth, he uses subtle changes in dynamics to suggest a dramatically varied landscape – virtuosity of the most discreet kind.

The first movement of the valedictory B flat major Sonata comes in relaxed and loose-jointed form, with Buchbinder letting the music pause and ruminate, rather than forcing it into the straitjacket of a tight structure. But his treatment of the remaining three movements doesn’t possess the same sureness: the Andante is heavy, the Scherzo and Trio rather charmless, and the concluding Allegro has a relentlessly pressured urgency. For a definitive account of that, go to Mitsuko Uchida’s fine Philips recording.


Michael Church