András Schiff: Franz Schubert (ECM New Series 2425/26)

Franz Schubert

András Schiff
Franz Schubert

András Schiff piano
Recorded July 2014, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

While András Schiff has reinforced the worthiness of Bach and Beethoven at the piano over a sprawl of recordings for ECM’s New Series, he has also carved out a hallowed space for the music of Franz Schubert, beginning in 2000 with a recording of the C-major Fantasies and now deepened with this composer-titled collection. In his liner text, “Confessions of a Convert,” Schiff discusses the transition to “authenticity” via historically minded performance, a movement that popularized use of period instruments and, ironically enough, the newness they brought to canonical repertoires. “There is an astonishing wealth of old keyboard instruments hidden in museums, foundations and private collections, many of them in prime condition,” he writes, speaking after his transformation from skepticism to advocacy. “Getting to know them is essential for the student, the scholar, the musician: it is a condition sine qua non. Playing on fortepianos—and on clavichords—should be compulsory for all pianists. Their diversity is amazing.” Even more amazing is the diversity of Schiff’s willingness and ability to adapt to these changing colors, to treat each as having equal value in the keyboard spectrum. For this recording he plays a fortepiano, built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820, which Schiff has owned since 2010. Attentive listeners will recognize it as the very one employed for the second version of the pianist’s Diabelli traversal, also for ECM. Once again, engineer Stephan Schellmann underscores the intimate life of this instrument.


The Sonata Nos. 18 in G major and 21 in B-flat major serve as centerpieces. An overall translucence pervades the first, and the opening movement, marked “Molto moderato e cantabile,” gains purchase by the fortepiano’s immediacy, which ensures that even the greatest leaps never forget where they came from. Schubert’s propensity for quietude is on full display, contrasting fragile highs with muddier lows. And while Schiff’s Brodmann might at first seem better suited to the Andante, it proves itself to be just as capable pulling off the half-tucked rolls of the Minuet. And the concluding Allegretto? Let’s just say that, if the sound, in combination with Schiff’s artful handling of it, hasn’t won you over by this point, then the album just might not be for you.

The Sonata in B-flat major, widely considered to be the pinnacle of Schubert’s writing for piano, feels not so much new as renewed, given access to muscles it might not otherwise exercise on a modern grand. If the G-major Sonata felt at best quasi-Beethovenian, then this one begs a more genuine comparison. From the low trills that interrupt with periodic hints of foreboding in the first movement to the flexion of the final Allegro, there’s more than enough for the comparatist to savor. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Four Impromptus (op. 142), is the fortepiano’s potential so evident. The seesawing between minor and major in the Andante and the spirited undercurrents of the Scherzo, and all the subtleties required to make those dynamics felt, come naturally to the instrument, which I daresay adds a boldness all its own by virtue of its focus.

Schiff’s reckoning of the op. 142 proves there’s still much to discover in these robust pieces. Each impromptu has its own charm, but the second, an Allegretto in A-flat major, proves the need for a tactful performer. Schiff balances its understated seeking with immediacy, all the while through his pacing lifting the music beyond an exercise in mere pathos. Some of the most dramatic moments of the album can be found here, barely eking out over the captivations of the Andante that follows it to round out the center.

Even in the shade of these gargantuan sonatas, the popular Moments musicaux hold their ground. In Schiff’s handling, they come across with spontaneity and breadth. Each has its own captivation, but the Andantino in A-flat major is a most remarkable vehicle for the fortepiano’s middle register. By the final movement, these beauties are swimming in fresh disclosures.

Not to be outdone, however, are two chosen miniatures. The Ungarische Melodie (Hungarian Melody) in b minor introduces the program with evocative subtlety, while the Allegretto in c minor, written for the departure of a friend, populates more spacious melodic tenements. Both contain a wealth of emotional pigments. Between the azure flash of a dramatic pause and the rusty ochre of hindsight, not a single piece piece of the puzzle feels out of place.

If this is your first time encountering Schubert’s piano works, it may just become a reference recording. If you come to it with familiarity, especially by way of Schiff’s nine-course feast on Decca, then you will want to keep it for comparison and discovery with all the rest. And to be sure, even putting aside questions of instrument, this recording is by nature historically informed, because it is itself history in the making.

(To hear samples of Franz Schubert, please click here.)

Franz Schubert: Moments musicaux (ECM New Series 2215)

2215 X

Franz Schubert
Moments musicaux

Valery Afanassiev piano
Recorded September 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Valery Afanassiev returns to ECM with his second program dedicated to Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Whereas his much-lauded Lockenhaus disc reckoned with the massive final sonata, here focus is on the Moments musicaux (D. 780, Op. 94) and the Opus 53 D-Major Sonata, both late works of characteristically bipolar flavor. Also characteristic are Afanassiev’s interpretations of them, infused as they are with ebullience and melancholy in equal measure. In his liner notes, the Russian pianist muses on the notion of a “no-time’s land,” a momentary space that Schubert has filled with this music. It is a lingering moment, a moment to take pleasure in the details of one’s surroundings, a moment that is itself music. He notes also the tendency among (a certain number of) Japanese poets to unravel a moment, “driving it to the brink of eternity.”

Such aesthetics operate at turning points throughout the disc, first noticeable in the transition between the C-Major Moderato and A-flat Major Andantino of the Moments musicaux. Schubert composed its six miniatures sporadically between 1823 and 1828. That Mendelssohn called them “Songs without Words” should come as no surprise, for the block chords that pervade the first of the two sections in question lay down a solid foundation for all the melodies to follow. Emotionally vibrant yet somehow neutral (the notes shuffle one step back for each taken forward), these mercurial waters yield an Arthurian sword of innocent beauty. Neither parallel nor divergent, these streams meet in the solace of a universal unfolding. Following the charming, child-like storytelling of the f-minor Allegro moderato, the c-sharp minor Moderato owes its texture to Bach, whose keyboard style it expertly emulates but also colors with its own romantic flair before returning to f minor in a galloping Allegro vivace. Afanassiev excavates the latter with just the variety it needs to catch our archaeological regard. Last is an Allegretto in A-flat Major. Its statelier posture and chromatic inhalations make it the most mature moment of the set.

Characterized by Afanassiev as “an assortment of games,” the D-Major Sonata is something of a fountain of youth. “Unlike Schubert,” he goes on to say, “I shall never play hopscotch again except in some of his sonatas.” A relatively brisk sonata by Schubert standards, the Opus 53 can hold a candle to any of Beethoven’s and rests on the foundation of its massive first movement. A dense opening reveals flowery, delicate runs, alternating between drama and reflection within a naked stream of consciousness. The second movement, while longer, is more introspective. Afanassiev’s management of its densities depends on a feel for harmony as masterful as the composer’s. Like the Scherzo that follows, and even the concluding Rondo, it fuels its own ambition with transparency.

Afanassiev is an artist keyed into cinema, philosophy, and cultural difference. He brings this knowledge to his Schubert, which opens its eyes like sails and catches the wind of an interpretive spirit. Through this allegorical filter, he turns life into light and shines it on the keyboard without compromise. These pieces, then, become part of a brighter whole, wherein beats the heart of one who had many more songs to sing.

(To hear samples of Moments musicaux, click here.)

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.

Arnold Schönberg/Franz Schubert: Klavierstücke (ECM New Series 1667)


Arnold Schoenberg
Franz Schubert

Thomas Larcher piano
Recorded July 1998 at Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Consummation. This is what the piano music of Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) and Franz Schubert (1979-1828) have in common, the bridge that Thomas Larcher brings to this welcoming solo recital, his first for ECM. To underscore this point, he shuffles Schönberg’s Klavierstücke op. 11 with Schubert’s posthumous Klavierstücke D 946. By turns halting and didactic, the opening pairing opens into the fresh air of Schubert’s precisely syncopated revelry. The contrasts between the two composers are obvious to the ear, but to the heart Schönberg is an extended exhalation to Schubert’s inhalation. Where Schönberg plots slow, jagged caverns, Schubert runs furtively above ground in the sunshine. Yet both seem so urgent to tell their stories, offering lifelong journeys from relatively young minds.

Similarly, the subtle miniatures that make up the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke op. 19 of Schönberg unfurl scrolls upon scrolls of experience, far into the future, where Schubert’s rolling Allegretto c-Mollo D 915 reads like a thrumming postscript.

One need not expound at great length in order to capture the spirit of this music. Its connections are fierce, their execution nimble as a dancer’s feet. Close your eyes, and let it show you a different sort of light.

Gidon Kremer/Kremerata Baltica: Schubert – String Quartet G major (ECM New Series 1883)


Gidon Kremer
Kremerata Baltica
Franz Schubert
String Quartet G major

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer violin and conductor
Victor Kissine orchestration
Recorded July 2003, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a tireless champion of new interpretations of the old, the ever-adventurous Gidon Kremer has over the years forged a lasting relationship with, above most others, the music of Franz Schubert. One can only imagine, then, the excitement he must have felt when he learned of composer Victor Kissine’s having finished a string orchestral version of Schubert’s G-major String Quartet (op. posth. 161, D 887). The arrangement of this notorious masterpiece at first seems to embody a curious double bind, for while it certainly enhances the music’s dramaturgical spectrum, it simultaneously softens the edges thereof. The result is a rounded idol of the original. And yet, like a piece of glass that has been worn down by river’s flow or ocean’s tide, it takes on a new shape, becomes a jewel in the hands of a child, a glint of light noticeable even in an already vast and glowing population.

From the five seconds of silence that begin every ECM album made in the last 20 years, the orchestra emerges with a mounting proclamation that immediately justifies the means. Amid the dance of major and minor that ensues, the occasional soliloquy, like that of the pizzicato-ornamented cello in the opening movement, rings all the clearer. Here one must also note the Kremerata Baltica’s honed dynamic control, by which, despite the youthful magnitude of its combined forces, the music’s ruptures are allowed to sing with all the philosophy of their emptiness. Magisterial tempos give greater lift to the score and throw us into its spirals with swooning regard. The Andante enacts a veritable play of shadows, comporting its thematic actors with Beethovenian stagecraft. The cello reemerges as a voice with one foot behind closed eyes and one outside of them, and fades tear-like into the relatively brief Scherzo, where skittering motives place many a deft footstep through an agitated waltz before reworking the flames, only now more scintillating, in the final Allegro, which gallops its way through pages of light and shadow, leaving us to ride its ripple effect back into the open silence from which it awakened.

This project has Kremer written all over it. From his never-superfluous gildings to even the cover photograph (entitled “Heading for the North Pole” and taken by the man himself in 1990), Kremer has given his all to the finished product. This has nothing to do with ego, but with a reverence for Schubert, whose heart he and his entourage draw with the care of an anatomist. Kissine’s arrangement likewise allows us to hear the beating of this heart through a steady flow of melodic blood. And the sound? Wondrous. A sequins without the kitsch.

As I listen to this album it is snowing outside, yet the ground is warm enough to melt the snow on contact, giving the illusion that every flake continues to fall through the earth. I cannot help but map this sensation onto what I am hearing, for even as this music touches us it continues to fall through our skin and into a place in our minds where footsteps will never mar its confection.

Schubert: Sonate B-Dur op. posth. D 960 – Edition Lockenhaus, Vol. 3 (ECM New Series 1682)

ECM 1682

Edition Lockenhaus, Vol. 3:
Franz Schubert: Sonate B-Dur op. posth. D 960

Valery Afanassiev piano
Recorded July 1985 at the Lockenhaus Festival
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Gidon Kremer

With over 100 recordings of Franz Schubert’s last sonata, one might ask: Why another? Valery Afanassiev gives us a resounding answer with this performance from the 1985 Lockenhaus Festival (a last-minute substitution for a canceled trio), bringing to glorious life what Bryce Morrison has called “the pianist’s Hamlet.” As a swan song, the B-flat Sonata may easily be read as a tarnished mirror where our mortality balks at its own reflection. Yet in the listening, I am wont to hear not the looming specter of death, but rather the fluttering of a curtain letting in the light. Like a piece of fruit rotting in reverse, the B-flat Sonata awakens to find that its decay was but a dream, that it is as crisp and as ripe as the day it was born.

As it stands, Afanassiev’s interpretation is broader than most and respires through a powerful dynamic range. In his liner notes the Moscow-born pianist speaks of absolute truth, and of how the low flutter of the opening movement—what he calls “the most uncanny trill in the history of music”—grounds us from our high horses. For him, this sonata is a monstrous thing, the shock of horror behind a veil of art. He also critiques himself for leaning on sentimentality, though I think we can forgive his brazenness, for it is of the gentlest kind.

The first movement begins where many would end: in utter suspension. Every rustling is a bird falling into an abyss of yearning, where memories collide with the yet to be. Voices bubble up from that seismic trill, shielding us from our own expectations. Afanassiev’s punctuations are expectorate and his ascending lines as lilting as they are forlorn. Implications of perpetual motion interlock their fingers with weighty pauses and distant considerations, resolving into stained-glass intimations of “Adeste Fideles.”

The formidable Andante—a Largo in Afanassiev’s hands—whispers in half-light. He builds this slow prance brick by ephemeral brick, as if through a haze of recollection. At eleven and a half minutes, it is among the longest versions on record, and clothes a heart that one finds beating even more nakedly in the piano works of Valentin Silvestrov. Reason enough to own this disc.

After the stark wash of this silent film, we are thrown into the sparkle of a Technicolor spectacle in the Scherzo before sliding down its rainbow into the final Allegro. Here Afanassiev’s deep breath acts as emotive bellow, seeming to blow dust at the feet of the finale, which remains frozen in mid air—racing but never quite touching ground, flapping but never quite lifting off.

Despite the breadth of his tonal spectrum, Schubert is not a composer who works in gradations, but in densities. The light is always there. We simply see or less of it depending on how porous the scrim of the music becomes. Some sections, like the opening leitmotif, are latticed; others are tightly woven baskets; still others, nets through which any hope may pass unfiltered. It is music that works in ages, by turns dancing and hunched on the gnarled cane of infirmity.

If Schubert speaks in tenses, then Afanassiev is a master conjugator. This is a rendering at once flagrant and conservative. A valuable performance to have on record.

Schubert: Trio in Es-Dur/Notturno (ECM New Series 1595)

Franz Schubert
Trio in Es-Dur/Notturno

Jörg Ewald Dähler fortepiano
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded July 1995

ECM has nobly benefited the classical music industry by continuing to draw bold lines back to the works of Franz Schubert with consistently thoughtful performances and pairings. Although he never wrote for piano trio until his final year of life, Schubert seems to have put his all into the two masterworks that are the op. 99 and op. 100. For this major release, the latter has been paired with the often-neglected “Notturno,” published two decades after his death.

Harriett Smith calls the Trio in Es-Dur für Klavier, Violine und Violoncello op. 100, D 929 a “bridge between the trios of Beethoven and Brahms,” and was the longest ever composed (it equals, if not surpasses, the average symphony in scope) until Morton Feldman’s Trio of 1980. Penned in 1827, four years into the advancement of his syphilis, Schubert’s second piano trio came about when a close friend, Josef von Spaun, requested the piece for his wedding. Schubert would die in a matter of months after its premier, which reached his ears once before they heard no more.

The musicians superbly evoke the careful tension Schubert has worked into every phrase of the first movement. In its cosmos, one hears the voices of the stars, throttling the engine of space-time in dreamy suspension. A tinge of classicism adorns the Swedish folk song-enriched interior of the second movement, its delicate modality reflected in the pizzicato from both strings. An Austrian country-dance provides the basis for the Scherzo that follows, leading us into a massive Allegro moderato, which inventively brings back the theme of the second movement. Despite the daunting length of this and the first movement, our sense of progression never wavers. Schubert’s magical touches make exuberant experiences out of these longer narratives.

If, in the full trio, we get four worlds as one universe, in the Trio in Es-Dur für Klavier, Violine, Violoncello op. posth. 148, D 897 we get a glimpse into a newborn nebula. This single movement, dubbed “Notturno” (Nocturne) by publisher and composer Anton Diabelli, is believed to have been a rejected Adagio for the first piano trio in B flat major. As fragile as it is taut, it continues to thrive, a gorgeous offspring wrought in filigree and grace.

Jörg Ewald Dähler’s historically informed fortepiano, combined with the profoundly contemporary approaches of resident label cellist Thomas Demenga and the legendary Hansheinz Schneeberger on violin, infuses every moment of these performances with equal parts innovation and ritual. One need only listen behind closed eyes to see the images they recreate.

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