Schubert: Hungarian Melody, D817; Sonata in G, D894; Moments musicaux, D780; Allegretto, D915; Four Impromptus, D935; Sonata in B flat, D960

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: ECM New Series
WORKS: Hungarian Melody, D817; Sonata in G, D894; Moments musicaux, D780; Allegretto, D915; Four Impromptus, D935; Sonata in B flat, D960
PERFORMER: András Schiff (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: 481 1572

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In a series of recordings made for Decca during the 1990s, András Schiff established himself as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Schubert’s piano music. He earned such an accolade largely through performing this repertory on a modern instrument. Here, however, Schiff has decided to present a judiciously varied mixture of sonatas and character pieces on an 1820 Viennese fortepiano made by Franz Brodmann. The results are totally captivating and shed new light on such familiar music.

Schiff justifies his reasons for performing Schubert on the fortepiano not on the basis of historical correctness, but rather because this particular instrument’s technical characteristics and mellow sonorities seem exceptionally well attuned to the composer’s style.

His Brodmann offers a much more strongly defined treble, middle and bass registers than the modern grand. It also boasts a more subtly varied range of pedals including the familiar soft and sustaining pedals and ones known as the bassoon and moderator pedals which, with the use of different types of cloth to dampen the strings, modify the sound to striking effect. Inevitably the dynamic range is more constricted, allowing far less opportunity to unleash those sudden volcanic outbursts of anger that characterise late Schubert. At the same time, the long stretches of reflective music which predominate here provide him with a far greater possibility of effecting a much more intimate and subtly nuanced sound. Such passages as the gently insistent opening of the G major Sonata, or the ambiguous major/minor key juxtapositions that punctuate the first of the Moments musicaux, are particularly mesmerising here. It’s also fascinating to hone in on Schiff’s miraculous control of timbre and his capacity to draw out a wealth of interesting detail from inner parts.

The two discs are cleverly devised to offer mini recitals in their own right, juxtaposing a late sonata with a set of character pieces. Each one opens with an aperitif. In the first, the relatively unknown Hungarian Melody sets the scene, its softly strumming harp-like sonorities creating a particularly haunting impact. The second CD brings us the lively yet dark-hued Allegretto in C minor, projected with a winning mixture of charm and bittersweet regret, before launching into the later set of Impromptus. Throughout, Schiff encompasses a striking range of moods, most effectively epitomised in the contrasting set of variations that make up the Third Impromptu. But undoubtedly the most revelatory music-making comes in the achingly beautiful account of the B flat Sonata.

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Erik Levi