Sunday, July 17, 2016

Vladimir Feltsman’s Schubert Project Advances to its Second Volume

This past March Nimbus Records released the second volume in pianist Vladimir Feltsman’s project to record the music of Franz Schubert. Like the first volume, which was released in April of 2014, the album offers two sonatas from different periods in Schubert’s life, the 1819 D. 664 in A major and his very last sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major, composed only a few months before his death in November of 1828. This new release also follows the plan of the first volume by separating these two sonatas by shorter selections, in this case the D. 924 collection of the twelve “Grätzer” waltzes.

For those unfamiliar with the first volume, it is probably worth noting that Feltsman is making his recordings on a modern instrument. He is not interested in the sorts of sonorities that Schubert may have encountered on the instruments he played. His attention is fixed firmly on what Schubert wrote and how those marks on paper can be turned into a compelling account of Schubert’s approach to “documenting” music. Note that choice of verb. There is a famous (notorious?) anecdote about Schubert’s inability to play his own D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasia. In writing about Feltsman’s first volume, I compared the first movement of the D. 894 sonata in G major to a dramatic monologue; and there are valid grounds for the attentive listener to approach the two sonatas in this second volume as “acts of narration,” even if those acts may not necessarily be grounded on an underlying narrative. From that point of view, the choice of instrument and the distinctive qualities of that instrument’s sonorities are less significant than how Feltsman has chosen to phrase passages of a variety of different lengths and prolongations, many (if not most) of which firmly wean the mind of the listener beyond the conventions and expectations established during the eighteenth century.

To use the adjective that Arnold Schoenberg liked to apply to Johannes Brahms, both of these sonatas are “progressive;” but it is important to recognize that progression is recognized on a variety of different scales. For example, one of the most notable qualities of D. 664 is that the final cadence on the first movement comes back as the opening gesture of the second. (This makes for one of those rare instances in which listening to a recording may provide an advantage over a recital experiences, particularly if the recitalist has to wait for latecomers to take their seats after (s)he has finished the first movement!) This is one of those situations in which rhetoric has everything to do with the subtlety of a passing moment that is gone before mind registers that an unanticipated repetition has just occurred.

The “adventurism” of D. 960, on the other hand, is less subtle. Begin with the fact that the duration of the first movement is basically on the same scale as the sequence of the three movements that follow, the sort of grand design that lies fallow until cultivated further by Gustav Mahler (who was then followed by Dmitri Shostakovich). The epic scale of that movement then moves from B-flat major into C-sharp minor for the Andante sostenuto. Through this movement the attentive listener comes to recognize that Schubert not only understood Ludwig van Beethoven’s rhetorical skill at making time stand still but also mastered it for his own purposes. The pianist who settles into this almost serene sense of timelessness will, however, still have to contend with Schubert’s decision to have his coda shift into C-sharp major! Then, after a Scherzo that returns the listener (again with an abrupt transition) to the comfort of B-flat major (with a B-flat minor Trio), Schubert thrusts the listener into the frantic intensity (not really captured by an Allegro ma non troppo tempo marking) of the final movement in G minor, not allowing B-flat major to rear its head until the even more frantic Presto coda.

What is important about Feltsman’s approach to execution is that he does not try to overplay any of these “progressive” aspects of either sonata. In his execution expressiveness is derived from a clear account of what Schubert had chosen to document. This is particularly important when it comes to guiding the attentive listener through the extended prolongations of D. 960 or letting the unexpected shifts in tonal center register without being overemphasized. In other words this second release of Feltsman’s approach to Schubert is as engaging as his first was and will probably lead many listeners to await the next release with heightened anticipation.

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