Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata & Impromptus – Marc-André Hamelin

CDA68213Piano Sonata in B flat major D960

Four Impromptus D935 Op 142

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

(Hyperion CDA68213)

Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, more used to scaling the most vertiginous peaks of the piano literature or revealing the more esoteric nuggets and rarities of repertoire, has released a recording of Schubert’s final piano sonata and the second set of Impromptus.

The evergreen Sonata in B flat, D960, is perennially popular with pianists and audiences alike, and regularly graces concert programmes and recordings. Not only is it a beautiful and absorbing piece of music, it also holds a curious fascination for pianists and listeners. Completed just a few months before the composer’s death in November 1828, this sonata (and to a lesser extent its companions D958 and D959) is regarded by many as a valediction or a premature message from beyond the grave – the composer’s final farewell at the end of a life cut tragically short by syphilis. As a consequence, this sonata has acquired a certain “otherworldiness” which can influence the way pianists approach it. It is, in my opinion, unhelpful to apply too sentimental an interpretation to this striking work, or to approach Schubert’s life and work in Vienna in the first part of the nineteenth century with 21st-century sensibilities:  it is worth noting that the average life expectancy for a man in Vienna in the 1820s was 38 years, and at the time when Schubert lived in that great city it was dangerous, dirty, disease-ridden, and rife with crime. All lives were lived on the edge of sorrow, not just Franz Schubert’s. And so while there is pathos, sombre melancholy and a sense of acceptance (but never resignation) in this Sonata, there is also serenity, exuberance and a tangible joie de vivre, particularly in the third and fourth movements. Indeed, by the close of the work, one has the sense of a composer who lived a full life and still had plenty more to say.

When so many performances and recordings of this great sonata exist, including some notable “benchmark” recordings which stand the test of time (and we each have our personal favourites), why would a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s standing and facility, with an already impressive discography, turn to Schubert? Well, in a way, late Schubert – like late Beethoven – sits up there alongside Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare’s writing, there’s always more to find in this music, and each performance (as a player or listener) is a different experience. The D960 has the richness of a journey willingly undertaken and plots a course through the whole gamut of the composer’s personality, his emotions and ideals. He’s introspective, yet his message has a universal truth – and tenderness too.

For a pianist who seems able to handle anything the repertoire can throw at him, from the craggy edifice of Charles Ives’ ‘Concord’ Sonata, Stockhausen’s enigmatic Klavierstück IX, to Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, or the mannered witty classicism of Haydn, late Schubert seems an unusual choice. Yet I know from a conversation with Marc-André that this is a hugely significant undertaking for him personally, and I feel this recording perhaps says more about the pianist than the work itself.

This is not virtuosic music, in the traditional sense of the word. It has no grand gestures nor intricately glittering passages; it is introspective and often deeply intimate. But there are certainly connections between Schubert’s last sonata and Ives’ Concord – both are large-scale works, expansive and wide-ranging, and require the pianist to create a clear narrative for the entire work, rather than “sleepwalking” through it. Schubert combines beauty and a structure so vast that it seems it may never end, and the work requires special reserves of concentration and artistic vision to be convincing. Pairing this large sonata with the four Impromptus D935 gives the listener a chance to appreciate Schubert’s intense artistic maturity and skill in handling structure in smaller works too.

Fortunately, Hamelin eschews the valedictory or overly sentimental approach for the D960 and opts for a leisurely Andante moderato in the opening movement, highlighting the graceful hymn-like melody of first subject, and despite a couple of rhythmic anomalies, the music moves forward with a serene sense of purpose, occasionally tinged with hesitancy. Agogic accents (a slight hesitation before arriving at a note) are used to emphasise the long notes which begin the phrases in the first subject. This can feel a little self-conscious at times, although I appreciate why Hamelin does it – it lends a dramatic poignancy to the melody. The infamous bass trill, first heard in bar 8, is a distant rumble, nothing more ominous, though later iterations feel more unsettling, quickly dispelled by the poetic melody, which is tastefully balanced against the accompaniment. The bridge to the development section (the exposition repeat is, thankfully, intact!) – those two extraordinary chords at bar 117 – is suitably ethereal, though the pause before embarking on the development is just on the uncomfortable side of dramatic for me. Overall, Hamelin’s take on this movement is not “Schubert as Beethoven on a quiet day”, but rather Schubert the genial spinner of songs: Hamelin gives this movement the intimacy of a lieder while also appreciating its regal expansiveness. Schubert’s good nature is never far away in the transitions between major and minor passages, to which Hamelin responds with a nuanced warming up or cooling of the sound, and the overall mood is positive – imperturbability and joyfulness are only occasionally disturbed by darkness.

The temperature drops somewhat in the slow movement (famously given a desolate, almost funereal air by Sviatoslav Richter’s choice of tempo), though the atmosphere is restrained and meditative rather than cold and melancholy. The bass line, whose rhythmic ostinato figure maintains the underlying sense of forward motion in the outer sections, is well delineated and never obscured by too much pedal. And it is that rising bass figure, over which the melody is simply yet elegantly shaped, which also saves the music from becoming too sombre. The middle section, in warm A major, is rather passive. I would have liked a greater sense of exaltation: it feels a little held back and occasionally ponderous. The coda however is sensitively managed, ending on a rising arpeggio in radiant C-sharp major.

If the opening movement unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the third movement is as bright and playful as a mountain stream. Hamelin captures its bubbling, quixotic character, responding neatly to the harmonic sidesteps and shifting registers. A change of mood is signalled in the minor key Trio, whose fzp bass accents and syncopations in the right hand suggest an exotic and rather menacing dance or ländler, but the former ebullience is quickly restored in the return to the Scherzo, preparing the way for the finale.

It is in the finale that Hamelin has the greatest opportunities for virtuosity, yet there is restraint and sensitivity here, just as in the opening movement: supple responses to the shifting moods and harmonies, the second subject melody lyrically shaped, the dotted rhythms dance gracefully, and some colourful voicings give this movement playfulness and vigour. The occasional places where the tempo presses forward somewhat unexpectedly lend a slightly breathless sense of urgency, while the coda is bright, robust and positive.

Coming after the expansive D960 (other programmes may place these works the other way round), the Impromptus D935 also have the sense of a sonata in four contrasting movements. The fourth of the set has a toe-tapping vigour and wit, a darkly lit Hungarian dance (remember these pieces were written the year before the final sonatas in the aftermath of Winterreise), the third is graceful and mercurial, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and the second tender and intimate.

The F minor Impromptu, the first of the set, has an orchestral grandeur offset by the tender duetting passages. Purists will balk at the addition of a “new” coda, written by Hamelin himself, who regards the score “a frozen moment in time“. His justification for adding a coda in this instance is that the work “basically finishes without a coda“, and while he believes that one should not stray too far from what the score says, it is sometimes “permissible to go a little bit away from it“. Certainly, it’s an interesting addition, perhaps more akin to Schumann than Schubert in its romantic textures, and it picks up the duetting fragments from the main body of the work. For me it just feels too unexpected.

But perhaps the most unexpected aspect is Hamelin’s decision to record late Schubert, given his predilection for more virtuosic/unusual repertoire. It’s a bold move, because the Sonata D960 holds such an important place in the repertoire and the hearts and minds of pianists, listeners and commentators. Do we need another recording of the D960? Does it matter that many others have also recorded it and others are waiting to record it in the future? I don’t think so, because the music is there to be played and this recording will enter the great catalogue of Schubert recordings to give pleasure to listeners. It may not be to everyone’s taste –  no recording ever could be – but there’s an eloquence and sensitivity in Hamelin’s approach to this music which is satisfying and committed.

Recording details: May 2017
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: 27 April 2018
Total duration: 81 minutes 48 seconds

Informative and readable liner notes by Richard Wigmore



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