András Schiff: Schubert C-major Fantasies (ECM New Series 1699)

Schubert Fantasien

András Schiff
Franz Schubert C-major Fantasies

András Schiff piano
Yuuko Shiokawa violin
Recorded December 1998, Schloss Mondsee
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It is tempting to say that the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was ahead of its time. In the words of pianist András Schiff, “Schubert has such modernity—perhaps his time has only arrived now.” When encountering the 1822 “Wanderer” Fantasy for the first time, the characterization would seem to fit like a tailored suit. And yet, if we track its subsequent influence on composers as diverse as Liszt and Ligeti, it becomes clear that he was a composer of his moment, and it is this moment to which so many listeners have returned in their own wanderings. It might, then, be more accurate to say, “Modernity has such Schubert.”

In the first half of this recital disc for ECM, Schiff flows through the piece’s technical challenges like a river through a forest. As remarkable as this is, more intriguing are the ways in which he navigates its emotional mazes, for as a Schubert interpreter Schiff prefers poetry to drama. He gives requisite oomph to the magisterial introduction and from it elicits rounded gestures implying acres of pasture at a single touch of key. Yet his most commanding moments are the gentlest. Almost as still as mirrors, they reflect the leaf-patterned light that seeks them. Pulling away the vines, Schiff smells the moss, fecund with mystery. Knowledge of Schubert’s all-too-brief life inflects these passages darkly. From the spectral to the colloquial, the “Wanderer” spans the gamut of responses to landscape, though the Beethovenian desperation in the final fugue is undermined by an intermittent restraint that may sit oddly with fans of benchmark recordings like Richter’s or Pollini’s. Still, a resplendent sign-off gives the piece a total shape that is Schiff’s own.

His wife, violinist Yuuko Shiokawa, joins her partner for Schubert’s Fantasy D934, also in C major. Published posthumously in 1850, its proper score rested dormant beneath the recital stage until the 1930s. Emerging in a ghostly whisper, Shiokawa draws a spider’s thread through the piano’s microscopic tides. This is the dream to the former fantasy’s waking, made manifest through the strains of an inviting dance. Shiokawa brings appropriate balance of airiness and strident romanticism to what is arguably some of Schubert’s most beautiful writing. She partners well with the piano as a parallel voice—neither competing nor unified. Shiokawa also handles the technicalities with grace, particularly during a delightful passage that floats pizzicato in cascading undulations from Schiff’s fingers. Another flowery conclusion, if more succinct than the last, again closes the circle with confidence.

The recording here is noticeably soft in texture, heavy in the lower register. The combination sucks a bit of wind from Schubert’s sails in portions, especially in the finale of the “Wanderer.” Both Fantasies remain purest in their introductions and in their quieter turns. Such issues aside, with these two pieces Schubert shows that perhaps all music is fantasy.

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