Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fantasy in C,
D 760, “Wanderer Fantasy.”
Piano Sonata in a,
Allegretto in c,
Paul Lewis (pn)
href="album.jsp?album_id=809405">HARMONIA MUNDI 902136.37 (2 CDs: 123:13)
Sonata in D,
Valery Afanassiev (pn)
ECM 001761802 (70: 10)
Given the surplus of recordings of piano works by Franz Schubert, it is hard to imagine a time when pianists did not often play his works. But indeed such a time did exist when few pianists touched—even knew of—some of his greatest music. Luckily, over the course of the 20th century, largely due in part to pianists such as Artur Schnabel, the composer’s reputation as a musical architect of large-scale works grew. And as the number of pianists interested in this music has grown, so have the many modes of interpretation of these works. The two pianists here show two different sides of the composer—even of themselves—in how they choose to approach this music.
Paul Lewis, the rising British star, a former pupil of the illustrious Alfred Brendel—a noted Schubert interpreter himself—has recently been riding the wave to stardom. Hot off the heels of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, he has now turned his attention to Schubert. And perhaps he still has a bit of Beethoven in him: This Schubert is aggressive and it is powerful. Listen to the section right before the fugue in the
; with those added bass notes it sounds as though the world is ending. The fugal subject is not so much played as hammered out, though all with a roundness of sound which is stunning given the heaviness of the individual notes. But Lewis is not always so: The passagework at the composition’s end sparkles in delicacy, in clarity, and brilliance all at the same time. His approach to the A-Minor Sonata, D 845, is similar in effect. Here his articulation falls a bit flat in certain respects—his staccato in the opening movement could be a bit crisper than it is—but Lewis certainly sees the big picture in this work. He worries more for the effect of the entire movement than about the fussy details. That is not to say that he is not mesmerizing at certain moments (just listen to the way he tonally shades many of the more lyrical sections in the variations) but that the driving quality—that Beethovenian impulse—is at the heart of his playing here too.
If anything, the sonata lacks a little intimacy and transparency, but Lewis saves some of that for the smaller works. The
, those later masterpieces written in the last five years of the composer’s short life, are scaled back. From the jubilancy of the opening work through the quirkiness of the third and aggressiveness of the fifth, Lewis seems quite at home in these pieces. The highlights for me are Lewis’s mysterious, almost improvisatory sounding way with the fourth of the set: The change to the major in the middle section is just perfect—the lilt given and the simple almost folk-like character of the section is superbly achieved. The pianist’s
in the sixth work, combined with his use of smaller phrasing, brings a true sense of longing to mind: One’s heart breaks at moments like these. The
s are equally well played, though lacking in certain character for me at least in one example in particular: The second in A?—one of Schubert’s true little gems—is sentimentally played at the opening: It is too slow, it is missing that characteristic lilt that Lewis so profoundly captured in the aforementioned
. Were these four works to be considered together, as many do, as a sonata in everything but name, this movement would be the minuet or scherzo; in other words, a dance movement. Where then is the sense of the dance? But for over two hours of music, that is perhaps a small quibble.
Valery Afanassiev is a different pianist altogether. His sound to me is quite modernist in approach. Where Lewis could at times be sentimental, though in general I would call him a dynamic Schubert player, Afanassiev seems to see Schubert in an intellectual way: a contemporary pianist who plays Schubert as a neoclassicist might, devoid of the excesses of the 19th century. This may sound cold to some, but that is not the impression that I’m trying to give of his playing: He is not an unfeeling player, rather a restrained one in terms of overall effect. He too plays one of the major works, the D-Major Sonata, D 850, a favorite of Schnabel’s (who left a splendid recording of it as well!). The opening movement is jubilant and boisterous, though it is less driving than Lewis’s approach to the two big works on his recital. It is not to say that Afanassiev is not exciting: He is! But, he is also more interested in dwelling on the smaller moments: The movement, though march-like in character throughout, almost dances in his hands. The second movement is performed simply, but gracefully, with careful attention to articulation and phrasing; there is also a sense of the improvisatory (listen from about 5:00 to 5:30: The chords seem anything but inevitable, the silence pregnant with possibilities of what may follow). In Afanassiev’s hands, Schubert sounds revolutionary. The Scherzo, played a bit slower than I like, sounds like a battle between a rustic dance and an elegant one; the Trio brings a true sense of stasis, of simplicity back into the piece. The
also leans more towards the
side than to the
: Afanassiev plays it in 8:58. Schnabel does it in 7:45. What matters more, however, is his approach. Again he brings out the gentle and fluid character of the work: In his hands the work feels like a late 18th-century composition. The
is here more modest in scope as compared with Lewis’s approach, yet none the less rewarding. Rather than a jubilant opening for the first, I would call this a bit more restrained joy, perhaps a bit more introspective than Lewis’s, a bit more like a prelude of things to come. The third one lacks the momentum of Lewis’s and falls a bit flat for me, though his approach in the fourth is equally beguiling: The work sounds more akin to a Bach invention than improvisatory figuration. Again the last, the most profound of them all, makes for a fascinating conclusion. Here the work is less suggestive of longing or melancholy. To me it sounds more hopeful than disillusioning.
These are two equally compelling and valid choices for Schubert, and both work surprisingly well. But that should be the case given the temperament of these far different artists: How one truly feels the music is how one should play it. The noticeable difference for me came in the sound. Where ECM was forward facing and clear, Harmonia Mundi proved to be particularly cavernous and resonant in sound. While, clearly, Lewis’s conception of this music is more in keeping with the 19th century, one might even call it symphonic, I believe that the ambience of the recorded sound does him harm here. Some of the details simply get lost. But that should not dissuade one from acquiring either—or both!—of these recordings. They attest to just how fascinating a character Schubert is, and just how great is his music. These are two you do not want to be without.
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano in D major, D 850/Op. 53 "Gasteiner" by Franz Schubert
Valery Afanassiev (Piano)
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria
Moments musicaux (6) for Piano, D 780/Op. 94 by Franz Schubert
Valery Afanassiev (Piano)
Written: 1823-1828; Vienna, Austria
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