William Harvey Plays Schnabel & Schubert

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WP 2019 - 2SCHNABEL: Violin Sonata. SCHUBERT: Fantasy in C, D. 934 / William Harvey, vln; Frederic Chiu, pno / Centaur CRC 3678

At this point in time, it’s no longer surprising that pianist Artur Schnabel was also a composer whose works were unabashedly modern, not at all in the mold of Beethoven, Schubert or Mozart, the composers he was most closely associated with as a performer. I’ve found his chamber works to be mostly fascinating, even brilliant music, but his large-scale orchestral works arid and unappealing.

Fortunately, violinist William Harvey presents here his massive, half-hour-long sonata for solo violin, and except for some technical feats it is a work that owes little to the solo sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach. It is, rather, more of a ruminating work with dramatic moments. Its language is modal with moments of atonality, not nearly as harmonically grating as his orchestral music, and perhaps because it was written for the violin it has wonderful moments with really expansive melodic lines, all of which Harvey plays exceptionally well. Harvey, who has played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall as well as with orchestras in the Philippines, Mexico and the U.S.A., was recently named the concertmaster of the Mexican Orquestra Sinfónica National. According to the Schnabel Music Foundation website, Harvey took great interest in Schnabel the composer. In 2002, long before this sonata was published commercially, he contacted Schnabel’s heirs and received permission to study and perform it. This recording is the result of that endeavor, and a major work it is.

I was particularly surprised by the lyrical effusion of the relatively brief (2:57) second movement, which sounds like a cross between modern violin music and something that Fritz Kreisler might have written. This is also, considering Schnabel’s penchant for tightly-constructed music with little in the way of flash, a surprisingly virtuosic piece. The slow third movement, utilizing a great many chorded passages and portamento slides, is also reminiscent of Kreisler’s style but again more modern in its harmonic progression, although at about the 4:30 mark the tempo increases and things get rather thorny. Later on in the same movement, Schnabel almost becomes minimalistic in his use of sparse notes with a great deal of space between them.

The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo,” is a real tour-de-force, once again surprising for a work by Schnabel, and Harvey plays it with impeccable technique and a beautiful tone. In the fifth and last movement, “Sehr langsame Halbe, mit feierlichstem Ausdrück,” Schnabel returns to his more typical modern style, creating complex lines with bitonal and atonal harmonies that move and morph underneath the top line. By the midway point, virtuosic passages again dominate the piece, suddenly making a left turn in a surprising key change just before the 14-minute mark, then ends in a slow tempo with more Kreisler-like touches. It’s an utterly riveting work and one that, heard more frequently in concert, would undoubtedly make many new friends for Schnabel the composer since it is more accessible than many of his works.

As a filler on this disc, Harvey has chosen Schubert’s little-heard Fantasy for violin and piano. Little-heard it may be, but the slow opening section bears a strong resemblance to the composer’s Gross ist Jehova mixed in with a little of the String Quintet in C. Once again, Harvey plays with a beautiful tone and outstanding feeling, but Frederic Chiu appears to be playing one of those early pianos that sounds more like a toy instrument than the real thing, thus robbing the music of richness and color. A shame that, once again, the pursuit of historically-informed nonsense interferes with real, meaningful feeling in performance. In the fast section, Harvey plays with wonderful inflections without overdoing them, thus enlivening the music while Chiu rattles his little toy keyboard in the background. (Sorry, I don’t find it “charming,” I find it annoying. Just because Schubert had to suffer with an instrument like this doesn’t mean that we have to.) I was particularly impressed with the development section, where Schubert moves the little toy piano down into its lower range to, at long last, produce a few really dramatic moments as the violin plays passionately above it. Later on, however, it degenerates into typical Romantic-era effluvium with meaningless violin runs underscored by equally meaningless piano chords before returning to a recap of the introduction and ending on a strong note. An odd piece, then, with very good moments and very weak ones.

All in all, however, this CD is well worth obtaining for the Schnabel sonata. This is a major work and, in my view, a major performance as well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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