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ANDRÁS SCHIFF – FRANZ SCHUBERT: SONATAS & IMPROMPTUS / ECM New Series 2535-36

Here is a Schubert recording for our times, made in a small hall in Bonn on a historically appropriate instrument intended for an intimate setting. An interpretation of subtle nuances, fine shadings and regional flavours, emphasizing the cultural framework that defined this music. 

When András Schiff’s first double album with late piano works by Franz Schubert was released on ECM New Series in 2015, critics and audiences paid particular attention to the pianist’s choice of a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in 1820.  In the liner notes, Schiff explained his conversion “from Saul to Paul”, advocating a historically informed style of playing on instruments used in the classical era and describing the tonal characteristics of the Brodmann piano. The timbre of the instrument, he reasoned, reflected “a typically Viennese quality, gentle, melancholy, and song-like”. And since Schubert, like no other composer, used “the soft notes, the quietest sounds” to touch our hearts, the excellently preserved Brodmann with its four pedals serves these “quietest sounds” particularly well.

The album was BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Month”, commended for its “wondrous control of timbre” as well as Schiff’s “ability to elicit an abundance of interesting details from the inner voices”. In the New York Times, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim attributed “quietly bewitching” results to András Schiff’s approach to instrument and score, while Ingo Harden found words of praise in Fono Forum: “A more compelling, yet unobtrusive and subtle interpretation of, for example, the first movement of the Sonata in G major is hard to imagine”. In International Piano, Thomas May delighted in a “wealth of insights for Schubert connoisseurs” – inspired by “the dynamic contrasts and shadings of timbre that the Brodmann offers”, Schiff gives the impression of having deliberated over every single detail of the score. “The paradox is that Schiff’s fortepiano with its less voluminous, more delicate and non-homogeneous sound intensifies the emotional impact of Schubert’s contrasts, opening new horizons for contemporary listeners.”

Now this successful double album is followed by another, presenting the second cross-section of piano works from Schubert’s final years. Apart from the Sonatas in c minor and A major, written in 1828, it contains the second group of Impromptus (D 899) and the Three Pieces for Piano (D 946). 

Present-day perception of Schubert’s reputation as the creator of major instrumental forms is in part due to the advocacy of András Schiff. In the 19th century, Franz Schubert was the “Liederfürst”, a genius of the lyrical domain who knew instinctively how to transfer poetry to music and touch the heartstrings of the sensitive listener. Schubert’s piano songs were a primary ingredient of middle-class salon music. His piano sonatas, however, of which a dozen have survived, in addition to numerous fragments, were hardly appreciated at all.

When Franz Liszt, around 1840, turned the piano recital into a new, popular form of middle-class concert life, Beethoven’s piano sonatas instantly provided the core of the repertoire. Schubert, meanwhile, was considered a miniaturist, his Impromptus and Moments musicaux meeting with approval much more than his major, cyclical works.

It took a long time, until the late 1920s, for Eduard Erdmann and Artur Schnabel to bring these works up for serious consideration on the concert stage. As late as 1974, Alfred Brendel thought it expedient, in a ground-breaking essay, to clear away a whole mountain of prejudice against Schubert as a composer of sonatas. Since then, the sonatas have secured a permanent place in the repertoires of almost all profound pianists. Even more than Schubert’s symphonies, his sonatas have permitted many listeners access to the musical cosmos of the Viennese master.

Nearly all qualities formerly criticized now appear as strengths, even as distinguishing factors: the “wandering” character of a music that aims less at logical development than at subtle changes of light and perspective, that delights in procedural variations – all this appears as an invitation to plurality and openness. 

András Schiff’s new Schubert readings open up surprisingly novel points of entry into the meticulous workings of this piano music. The tonal dimensions of the Brodmann piano lure the listener into finely graduated articulations and dynamics, permitting natural calm as well as explosions of power. The historical instrument is the ideal medium for Schubert’s unique narrative qualities, mingling Austrian dialect and symphonic grandeur, idyllic reflection and chasms of existential longing.

© Studio Svengali, October 2019
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