Feltsman’s Bipolar Schubert Sonatas

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SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas: in A min., D. 784; in A, D. 959 / Vladimir Feltsman, pianist / Nimbus Alliance NI6345

Vladimir Feltsman, whose Bach recordings impressed me so greatly more than a decade ago, is now embarking on the complete piano sonatas of Schubert. This is Vol. 4 in the series, and it is indeed an extremely interesting approach to the music. The very opening of the sonata D. 784 is quiet, introspective, even mysterious in mood, but as soon as the volume increases Feltsman pounces on the keyboard like a tiger. Another interesting feature of his performance is that, despite the introspective passages, he takes this echt-Romantic music in strict tempo, using touches of rubato in the soft moments but a full-speed-ahead approach in the louder, faster moments.

This gives the music a more cohesive feeling than is often the case in Schubert, whose piano sonatas are more like extended fantasias. Each movement is a peculiar and self-contained psychological trek, while at the same time the separate movements never quite seem to relate to one another the way they do in Beethoven. Thus, to a point, I found Feltsman’s approach both bracing and musically logical.

But is a bracing, logical approach really apropos to Schubert? That is an aesthetic question that always seems hard to answer. Certainly, in some of his early symphonies such an approach is valid, but surely not in the Symphonies Nos. 7-9 (yes, Virginia, there is a Schubert Seventh Symphony). Even such strict architectural conductors as Toscanini, Rodzinski and Szell realized this, and what works in the late symphonies also works, at least for me, in the late sonatas and chamber music as well.

Take, for instance, the alternation of loud, fast tremolos and quiet music towards the end of Sonata D. 784’s last movement. Feltsman plays the tremolos like the storm music from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and the soft passages as if they were Bill Evans. It does convey a feeling of emotional schozophrenia, but is this really what Schubert intended? Or, if it isn’t what he intended, is it artistically valid?

Actually, it’s hard to say, because all we have to go by is the score and that isn’t really as detailed as we might like, but the implication is that Schubert was struggling with competing emotions when he wrote it. This, for me, is always the key to understanding both the mood and the method of interpreting his late works. Even though he was only in his early 30s, something dark and fatalistic had grown inside him. Melancholy was competing with the struggle to stay alive and live his life to the fullest, which as a victim of syphilis he knew he was denied him. In the liner notes for this disc, Feltsman says that “Schubert longed for what could have been, but never was. He dreamed of the life he should have had, but never did… He never had a real career or held a job in a musical establishment, did not perform publicly except in private houses, and did not conduct his own works… All of Schubert’s music is an attempt to reinvent the past and to create a new life, a new reality, a time that never ends––an everlasting Present.”

It’s an intriguing assessment of him, but no one is really sure. We do know that Schubert, who always struggled for a living, was envious of those who had achieved success in life. The first thing he would ask of a new acquaintance was, “What do you do for a living?” He didn’t want to be judged by his lack of a steady job, but was fascinated by the jobs of others. Occasionally he and Beethoven haunted the same bars at the same time, and the older composer made it a point to ignore him. He didn’t like Schubert, and that was that. I think he considered him a dilettante who over-wrote music.

By and large, I find Feltsman’s approach more appropriate in the Sonata D. 959, but this is a work where the phrases seem to follow one another with greater logic and less contrasts of mood. I was mesmerized by the opening movement of this sonata, where the tumblers all fall into place and everything makes perfect sense, and his performance of the second movement is particularly fiery, even a bit edgy, which I liked. I also liked the introspection he brought to the final section of that movement, and Taken on its own merits, this was quite fascinating.

Yet overall, I like the more discursive approach to Sonata D. 784 by Daniel Shapiro, a pianist who has spent a lifetime studying the composer, and the performance of D. 959 by Craig Sheppard on Roméo 7283. Clara Haskil’s few Schubert sonata recordings are also quite fine; I’m not quite as convinced by Artur Schnabel in Schubert as I am in Beethoven. Feltsman’s approach is certainly valid in its own way, however, and you may be interested in hearing his “take” on this composer.

Holliger SchumannA final note. The cover of this album has artwork that was used in part by Audite on the cover of Schumann’s orchestral works conducted by Heinz Holliger. I wonder why, and whose choice it was. Not sure what the painting is supposed to represent apropos of Schubert, but it’s Caspar David Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs on Rügen.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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