***The first disc of James Lisney’s ‘Schubertreise’ is now available from Woodhouse Editions. To hear sample tracks and order CDs, please visit the Woodhouse Editions website.***
British pianist James Lisney is making a personal odyssey through the late piano works of Schubert, presented in a series of concerts in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, and in an ambitious recording project that will present the piano music of Schubert with contrasted repertoire from a wide range of composers. The fanciful name for these peregrinations is ‘Schubertreise’, and this week the journey made a stop in Surrey, at Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, by the river at Walton-on-Thames. A converted 19th-century barn, the Riverhouse offers a pleasantly cosy recital space, with a fine Steinway piano, as well as a gallery and café.
The intimacy of a venue like this is perfect for Schubert’s small-scale piano works as it allows the audience to enjoy the music in the setting for which it was intended: the salon. This is music for friends, to be played by friends, and amongst friends. An added bonus was being permitted to take our drinks into the barn.
The piano music which Schubert composed in the last years of his life, after his tumultuous song cycle Winterreise, and the death of Beethoven, represents some of the best-loved of all piano repertoire, characterful masterpieces outside the genre of the sonata, which continue to fascinate pianists and music lovers alike.
The programme was built around the two sets of Impromptus (D889 and D935), with four (of six) Moments Musicaux, the Allegretto in c (D915), and the Drei Klavierstücke (D946) interspersed between them. The first ‘Moment’, in warm C major, was good-natured and graceful, a grace which continued into the Allegretto in c, which, despite its melancholy minor key, was genial and shapely. Lisney opted for a relaxed interpretation of the ‘Allegretto’ marking, allowing the poignant arpeggios of the main tune to flow with ease.
The Drei Klavierstücke (literally “piano pieces” – the title was given by Brahms on the publication of these pieces) are sometimes also termed “impromptus”, and each expresses perfectly the sense of the word: spontaneous and improvisatory. Lisney caught the “of the moment” nature of these pieces, with their shifting moods and tempi – a cantering ‘Allegro Molto Moderato’, long-spun melodic lines (reminding us that Schubert was a composer of songs), and episodes of melting, heart-rending tenderness. In all three pieces, Lisney demonstrated clarity of presentation, exquisite tone quality and legato, dynamic shading, and tastefully spare use of the pedal.
These pieces set the scene nicely for the Impromptus, which, played sans interruption, were revealed as works full of drama and variety, harmonic complexities and wide-ranging emotions. This is very familiar territory for Lisney (I first heard Lisney in this repertoire six years ago), but in spite of this, there was nothing trite about this performance. The chief attraction of Lisney’s Schubert playing is his ability to carry through the extended narrative of the piece, from opening statements to closing bars, while also highlighting all the harmonic, textural, and metrical byways along the way: a lyrical theme in the first Impromptu; a rough Bohemian waltz in the middle section of the tumbling, swirling Etude-like second; the singing serenity of the third, offset by bass rumblings; the ethereal semiquaver clusters of the fourth, with its poetic trio reminiscent of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. The music was played with drama, character and involvement, the piano tone limpid and muscular, delicate and declamatory, as the music dictated.
All these elements were carried through into the second set of Impromptus, from the grand Beethovenian opening sweep of the first of the D935 to the fourth, a sparkling moto perpetuo with a distinctly Hungarian flavour. There is another British pianist, who shall remain nameless, who seems determined to cast dark shadows over all of Schubert’s piano music. Not so Lisney, who brought warmth and light, humour and charm to the music (in particular in the B-flat ‘Theme & Variations’).
The evening ended with another ‘Moment’ (Andantino), a work of haunting poignancy, perfectly nuanced, and a calming salve after the energy of the final Impromptu. This was a very enjoyable and engaging concert (if a fraction too long), which offered a fascinating insight into Schubert’s late piano music.
For further details of James Lisney’s ‘Schubertreise’ please visit www.jameslisney.com.
Listen to sample tracks and buy CDs here
(James Lisney image credit Suzie Maeder)