Some composers have an image that is quite at odds with their music, yet which somehow cannot be erased from the music-loving public's mind. Franz Schubert is a good example. For years he was considered little more than a kind of musical idiot savant, a prating child with a natural talent for melody and capable of churning out miniature masterpieces in the form of lieder but incapable of mastering large-scale forms. Couple this with the few known portraits of Schubert -- a large, bespectacled, rather quizzical-looking man -- and you have the stuff of legend, albeit a thoroughly distorted one.
When Artur Schnabel first learned the Schubert sonatas, he was told they were only "suitable for the ladies." His pioneering recordings of the late sonatas made in the 1930s are among his finest; they also began the long (and still, in many ways, incomplete) process of re-evaluation of the composer's oeuvre and set a standard for interpretation against which all subsequent pianists have been measured. After Schnabel, it was no longer possible to call Schubert's mastery of sonata form into question; in the late sonatas and the last symphony (the Great C major), Schubert follows Beethoven in extending the form, often combining three (rather than two) principal subjects, advances which were taken up and extended in their turn by later generations of composers.
By the time he composed the Sonata in B flat, D.960 -- his last work in the form -- Schubert was within months of his own demise. The opening of the first movement is reminiscent of his lied Am Meer of the same year (1828). The text of the song: "Das Meer erglanzte weit hinab im letzten Abendscheine" ("The sea was shining in the last glow of the sunset"), seems more than apt for this, the longest (I believe) of Schubert's sonata movements, and sets the tone for the whole work. The sonata can bear the weight of a considerable variation in interpretative approach, from the extraordinarily inner-directed and deliberate Richter, to the patrician style of Pollini, or the almost extrovert playing of Lupu or Barenboim.
Jos van Immerseel is arguably the most successful pianist working in the historically informed field, although his lack of a contract with a major label has made him a less well-known figure than some other, perhaps lesser, names. His complete Mozart Concerto cycle, for which he improvised the cadenzas in the studio (the first to do so, despite claims made in certain other quarters), is very highly regarded, and his Debussy recital on an 1890s Erard piano was nothing short of revelatory (all these recordings were for Channel Classics).
Van Immerseel is not the first to perform Schubert on a period instrument, although to my ears he is the most successful. The instrument used in these recordings is a Tröndlin piano built sometime around 1835 and apparently preserved in such good condition that virtually no restoration work had to be done -- which is very unusual indeed. Most period pianos are either copies built within the last couple of decades or original instruments that have been restored (more or less successfully). The sound-boards, in particular, have tended to split over the decades, necessitating replacement.
The disc is titled Abschied von einem Freunde (which my rather rusty German renders as "Farewell from a friend"), and van Immerseel's approach is certainly what one might term a valedictory one. His tempo for the opening movement is on the slow side, but not extreme -- compare his 20:04 to Pollini's 18:52 or Kovacevich's 20:17, for example (all a far cry from Richter's extraordinary 25:17). I'm delighted to say that (in keeping with his background) he does observe the exposition repeat, together with the wonderful transitional passage leading back to it, which is otherwise not heard. (Most pianists do not observe the repeat; some positively dislike the transition). There is certainly a twilit feel to the molto moderato, although the development section finds van Immerseel raising the tension a notch or two. The andante sostenuto that follows is considered in certain quarters as the summit of Schubert's piano writing, a sorrowful lament gradually giving way to consolation. Here, again, van Immerseel's way with the music is utterly convincing; the twilight is gone and the wanderer is alone in the still, silent darkness with his thoughts. Van Immerseel is excellent at suggesting a gradual withdrawal from the world, while the more troubled central section clearly suggests that worldly cares are not so easy to shrug off.
After these two slow and monumental (in scale) movements, the scherzo and finale can be initially puzzling. The former is a joyful, playful piece which is somehow not quite of this world; the latter begins with a single forte C, sounding at first like a "false" entrance, and leading to a wonderfully memorable lilting melody (as if any by Schubert were unmemorable); Schnabel, according to his pupil Sir Clifford Curzon, characterized the movement by setting to the theme the words "Ich weiss nicht, ob ich labe, ich weiss nicht, ob ich weine" (I know not if I'm laughing, I know not if I'm crying) -- a contradiction which continues until the end of the work. To some extent these movements can often seem almost thrown away after the first two, and it is a measure of van Immerseel's success that his do not. Schubert's last sonata is a work which offers no false consolation; laughter and tears are never far from the surface, often (like life) at the same time. The late Klavierstücke, D.946 make a generous coupling and are as insightfully played as the sonata.
I can't say this performance would displace any of my favorites in the sonata. There is, after all, considerable opposition from virtually all the great pianists of the century. I will not be giving up my Richter (his unique 1964 Aldeburgh Festival performance on Music & Arts), Sofronitski (early '50s, Harmonia Mundi), Kovacevich (his earlier recording on Hyperion, superior, in my opinion, to his EMI remake), Schnabel (1937, EMI, Pearl), Curzon (1973 Decca/London) or Pollini (1987, DG); but I will be putting this alongside them.
I know a number of people, musicians included, who appreciate all the arguments in favor of performing music on the instruments of its time, but who simply cannot stand the physical sound of most recorded early pianos. But to hear an original, virtually pristine piano built just years after this sonata was written is obviously of considerable historical interest. More to the point, in my opinion, is that it sounds absolutely wonderful. No piano I have heard previously from this era has sounded even remotely as good as this. The bass is firm and far from the flabby or etiolated rumbling one often hears; the treble is warm and clear, with none of the clang or tinkle which plagues similar recordings. But don't get the idea I'm recommending this disc simply for the sound of the piano -- which is very nicely recorded, in a warm acoustic (a church in Delft) with enough hall resonance to round out the sound picture, but not enough to swamp the piano in a wash of reverberation.
Finally, the box proclaims this to be an enhanced CD, so undeterred, I attempted to find the enhancements. My aging CD-ROM drive at home wouldn't even give the disc house room. At work I attempted to install the Quicktime viewer under Windows NT, but the install crashed. Finally, I installed the software under Windows-95 and voilà. There are three short movie clips featuring the instrument itself and what I assume to be van Immerseel explaining the salient details. These are, no doubt, fascinating -- to anyone who speaks Dutch. There is also an executable file which displays a (very slow-moving) list of credits accompanied by the opening of the sonata's third movement.
In case you hadn't gathered, though, this is a disc well worth having regardless of the enhancements and regardless of any prejudices you may entertain regarding early pianos. The performance and recording are both excellent and for more than just enthusiasts.
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