Walter Klien’s Great Schubert Sonatas

CDX-5173 cover Vol 1

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-7, 9, 12-21 / Walter Klien, pno / Vox Box CDX-5173, 5174 & 5175

Franz Schubert’s “piano sonatas” are among the strangest ever written, and for that reason have never really been popular. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann or Brahms, he chose to ignore the strict “sonata form” in which each movement uses one or two themes and develops them, sometimes with an introduction in a different tempo. Rather, his sonatas are open, free fantasias for piano which ramble quite a bit, and the later ones are extraordinarily long. For these reasons, I didn’t like them much the first two times I listened to them, close to 50 years ago, even though the recordings I heard by Artur Schnabel and Sviatoslav Richter were considered to be the best. But time and experience have given me a different perspective on them.

I downloaded and tried to review a brand-spanking-new set of the Schubert sonatas by a pianist who shall remain nameless. His playing was clean and crisp, but not very accurate when it came to Schubert’s dynamics markings. In the Sonata D. 575, for instance, the very first bar demands a sudden drop in volume from f to p, and he simple did not do it. Nor did several other pianists whose recordings I sampled…until I hit upon Wilhelm Kempff. But in other respects, i.e. phrasing and continuity, even Kempff was not as good as modest little Walter Klien.

Walter KlienKlien (1928-1991) was an Austrian pianist who studied with Josef Dichler and Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli. As Wikipedia puts it, “He was much admired for his crystalline tone and projection of detail in his interpretations. His clarity of playing suited the music of Mozart and Schubert in particular.” I first ran across him as a college student in the late 1960s-early ‘70s when I saw and purchased his set of the Mozart Piano Sonatas on the Vox label. For years, he was my #1 model in the playing of these sonatas, later supplanted for me by the even better recordings of Friedrich Gulda.

But to be honest, in hearing these Schubert recordings I feel that he is unmatched in these pieces. He ignores nothing in the scores, which are riddled with rapid shifts in dynamics and tempo, yet is somehow able to pull the structure (such as it is) together a bit better than anyone else.

So why isn’t Klien better known? One online blogger gave a big clue when he recalled seeing him perform in person during the 1970s. Going up to congratulate him afterwards, he found Klien to be an exceptionally quiet, modest man who completely lacked the bravado of most famous pianists, Michelangeli included. When you’re a wallflower by nature, you’re not going to get very far in the classical world no matter how exceptional your talents are.

Despite my listing the sonatas numerically in order in the header, they were not issued in chronological order either on LP or here on CD. This is due to the fact that in order to do so and still fit the whole series onto six CDs, one would have to break up the sonatas, putting, say, the first and/or second movement at the end of one CD and the rest of the sonata at the start of the next. The actual order of this reissue is as follows:

Vol. 1: Sonatas 19, 18, 6, 16, 9 & 15
Vol. 2: Sonatas 20, 1, 14, 17, 13 & 2
Vol. 3: Sonatas 21, 5, 12, 7, 4 & 3

This makes for somewhat out-of-synch listening to say the least, but considering the strange form and shape of most of Schubert’s sonatas, I don’t find that a handicap. Like most pianists, Kempff included, Klien omits the incomplete sonatas except for No. 6.

One will note that several sonatas are missing, particularly Nos. 8, 10 and 11. This is because those sonatas are either lost or left incomplete, and yes, there are a few other half-torsos around as well, but as several pianists have pointed out, it’s really better in this case to leave well enough alone. It’s not like the Eighth Symphony, which Schubert was clearly planning to finish but didn’t before he died, or the elusive Seventh Symphony which exists in piano score but not in a full orchestration. Schubert may have kept those unfinished sonatas around with the idea of using some themes for future projects that never materialized, but considering how far back in time the incomplete works go, he quite obviously felt it was better to not complete them.

But the numbering system that Kempff and Klien used apparently does not apply to others. The late Paul Badura-Skoda’s set of the Schubert sonatas, all played on various period instruments (a fetish with which I do not agree), presents “only” 20 sonatas, but includes all of them. Sonatas Nos. 1-9 are numbered the same as with Kempff and Klien, but Badura-Skoda’s Sonata No. 8 is a combination of D. 571, 604, and 570, a hodgepodge sonata, his No. 10 combines D. 613 and 612, and No. 11 combines D. 625, 505 and 145 No. 1. But then he omits the finished Sonata No. 12, D. 625, which Kempff and Klien include, while somehow discovering two extra movements for the Sonata D. 840, “Reliquie.” The end result, with D. 625 omitted, is that Badura-Skoda ends up with 20 sonatas instead of 21, but they’re all “complete” according to his lights. Go figure.

Some listeners have complained that the sound of these recordings is too dry. I didn’t find them so; to my ears, they were somewhat close-miked but had a nice, natural ambience. In fact, I’d say that they sound warmer than Kempff’s recordings. As for accuracy of detail and interpretation, both Kempff and Klien are far better than Paul Badura-Skoda, whose set of these sonatas tends to be highly praised online. Badura-Skoda ignores many of Schubert’s markings and his playing often sounds prosaic, which doesn’t sit well by me.

I’m sure there are listeners who prefer Kempff’s discursive, almost improvisatory approach to these sonatas. I can’t say his approach isn’t valid since, after all, the Austrians in general have always enjoyed less rhythmically strict performances, and although I heartily disliked Kempff’s Beethoven for that reason, Schubert is an entirely different animal. Even so, Klien does no disservice to the slow movement in these sonatas, bringing out their quirky tenderness without resorting to pathos or bathos in his approach. Indeed, I found each and every sonata so satisfying that in the end I couldn’t really think of any particular movement or individual phrase that could have been done better. There’s a certain feeling of totality and perfection in each of these performances, and as a whole the series is so impressive that I don’t think you’d find the urge to explore others’ recordings either.

Comparing Klien to another great pianist who got his start in the U.S. on Vox, Alfred Brendel, one can say that Brendel paid more attention to smooth phrasing than Klien. In those early years, too, Brendel recorded some fine Schubert, such as the “Wanderer” Fantasy, to very good effect, but the crisper, less “Romantic” approach of Klien works wonders here. Without exaggerating anything, he still manages to hold you spellbound from start to finish in each and every sonata—and that’s something that not even Schnabel was able to accomplish in his few Schubert sonata recordings. Which only goes, once again, to illustrate how Beethoven and Schubert really demand a different approach. What’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

Perhaps the fact that Klien was a classicist at heart was what made his Schubert so good. The odd little hesitations and luftpausen in the music, all written in the scores, are played here but in a minimal sort of way. Thus Klien’s tempo modifications are for the most part subtle, which demands more concentration from the listener, whereas Kempff’s are broader and thus easier for the casual listener to grasp at first listening.

One excellent example comes early on in this set, the first movement, titled “Molto moderato e cantabile,” from the Sonata No. 18 in G. While never quite abandoning the “cantabile” instruction, Klien’s focus was on a light, dancing feeling, as if the music were a ballerina flitting about her apartment on pointe. I find that it suits the mood of the movement perfectly, yet because he was, after all, a classicist, Klien never let the music wallow in sentimental mush. It’s delicacy with a wide-awake vision of where he and the music are headed. And, for an example of what I meant early on when I said that Schubert’s sonatas are more like free fantasias, listen to the last movement of this sonata. Despite its quick tempo indication, “Allegretto,” the music tiptoes through your mind, stopping to admire a particularly lovely flower now and then rather than rushing headlong to its conclusion, as Beethoven or Brahms did.

As you go through the sonatas you’ll discover, as I did, numerous fascinating passages. In the hands of a lesser artist these contrasting themes, which sometimes don’t match the others in the movement in terms of mood (something like mismatched socks), would be a distraction, but Klien manages to gently nudge them together in order to make sense, the musical equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?” And it works.

Naturally, the last few sonatas are the most powerful and, to my ears, original of the entire set, and although I enjoyed Craig Sheppard’s performances of these works on Roméo Records, Klien’s interpretations strike me as both more balanced and more exciting, precisely because he does not over-exaggerate or underplay any particular moment. Everything sounds all of a piece, and suddenly those odd moments and sharp corners in the music all fit together. Interestingly, Klien plays the first three sonatas with a Beethoven-like intensity, which makes sense; written in 1815-16, this was a period in which Schubert was very much under the spell of Beethoven, who was his (rather unfriendly) neighbor in Vienna, and whom he would see, across the room, when he visited the wine bar that Beethoven habituated. I also found it odd how very “Russian” the first movement of the Sonata No. 14 (D. 784) sounded—at least, until the second subject which suddenly and inexplicably switches over to the major.

In the end, I think that what separates Klien’s Schubert from everyone else’s is that the others all sound as if they are Giving a Performance. Klien sounds like he’s just playing for himself, and you happen to be privileged enough to be listening in.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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