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CD Review

Franz Schubert

Piano Sonatas

  • Piano Sonata in B Major, D. 575
  • Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
  • Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959
  • Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960
Alfred Brendel, piano
Philips 456573-2 2CDs
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Alfred Brendel has for years had the reputation of being a self-effacing artist, a pristine Classicist who showed little emotion in his playing. He fussed over detail and religiously followed the composer's intentions or what he truly believed they were. In the last decade or so, however, he has put more flesh on his keyboard style and has added greater depth of feeling, as well. He still avoids drawing attention to himself and is faithful to the musical text, although in Schubert's sparsely marked piano music, of course, that characteristic must sometimes be viewed as secondary.

In this repertory Philips has also been releasing performances by Mitsuko Uchida, who has recorded D. 575, D. 959, D. 960, as well as others. Uchida has a more Romantic approach than Brendel, although his manner here is moving slightly toward her style. These Sonatas were all recorded live at various European and British locales, and in sound that is quite good. The audiences are generally quiet, though D. 960 sounds as though it was recorded in winter, but in fact it was taped in June. Concerts took place from June 1997 to June 1999.

In the B Major, D. 575, Brendel takes a Classical approach, though his playing turns a bit plump in a few places. In contrast, Uchida is Brahmsian and richer, chords lingering more, notes blending warmly. She may be the preferred artist here, although Brendel's Scherzo is more alive and dynamic. In the end, either of their readings could serve as first choice material in this sonata.

Brendel's performance of the A Major, D. 959, features a somewhat fussy statement of those big opening chords. Uchida, Lupu and others offer greater drama and power here, but most of the rest of the movement – and the whole sonata, for that matter – go well in Brendel's hands. In fact, this is overall a rather intense reading, the music sounding nervous and driven much of the time. Brendel gives Schubert a lean and concentrated forcefulness, even at times a quirkiness that is perfectly suited to the music.

In the B Flat Major, D. 960, he imparts a similar kind of intensity, often giving Schubert's music a restlessness that threatens to erupt – and often does so quite powerfully, too – and a profound sense of drama. Brendel also catches the playfulness and acid of the Scherzo. This is a splendid performance that can rank with the best in this great sonata. The G Major Sonata, D. 894, also receives a fine reading from Brendel. His vigorous account of the Menuetto is colorful and features greater depth than you'll hear in most performances. The same can be said of the finale, where he subtly captures that sometimes elusive quirkiness of Schubert.

In sum, this is fine playing from one of the most consistent artists before the public today. Can anyone name a bad or mediocre recording by Brendel from the last thirty years? It would be hard to think of one, and considering his cycles of Beethoven Sonatas and Concertos, his Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt recordings, that is high praise indeed.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Cummings