Pianist Vladimir Feltsman’s project to record the music of Franz Schubert, focusing primarily on the piano sonatas, seems to be picking up its pace. There was a rather substantial gap between the Nimbus Records release of the first volume in April of 2014 and the release of the second volume this past March. The third volume appeared almost exactly a month ago, offering some signs of hope that the project will come to completion within the lifetimes of those both implementing and following the efforts. What is most notable about this new release is that it comes very close to paralleling its immediate predecessor.
Once again the first sonata on the album is a product of Schubert in his early twenties, D. 568 in E-flat major. This is followed by the first of the “big three” sonatas, all of which were composed in September of 1828, a little over a month before the composer’s death. The second volume had presented the last of these, D. 960 in B-flat major; and this new release offers the first, D. 958 in C minor.
Those last three sonatas have been popular among recitalists for quite some time. It was not that long ago that András Schiff organized a series of three recitals around them (as well as the last three piano sonata by each of Schubert’s eminent Viennese predecessors, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven). What is important about this recording is that Feltsman is far more interested in a giving a clear account of Schubert’s “text” without trying to over-dramatize the rhetoric. Thus, while there are any number of ways in which it is clear that Schubert was seeking out new paths for expression, often exploiting possibilities for ambiguity and unfulfilled expectations, Feltsman’s discipline wisely avoids underscoring any of those elements. They are evident enough to the attentive listener that there is no need for a magnifying glass.
On the other hand in his approach to D. 568, Feltsman almost seems to remind the listener that this is a young Schubert, eager to establish his own voice but still more than a little hesitant in finding his way to that establishment. However, we know from Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog that, if Schubert was hesitant, he was still deliberate in considering his actions. It is clear from the incipits provided in the catalog that D. 567 in D-flat major was a first attempt at this sonata with only three movements and an incomplete first movement. (There is no Menuetto movement in D. 567.) One might almost say that D. 567 indicates where Schubert thought he wanted to go, while D. 568 presents the path he actually chose.
From that point of view, Feltsman’s approach to the Menuetto tells us much about Schubert’s ideas. As was frequently the case when Haydn identified a movement the same way, the music practically defies anyone with common sense to try to dance to it. The term establishes ternary form and little more than that. Instead, Feltsman endows Schubert’s Menuetto with an almost dreamy quality, perhaps reflecting on a past when minuets were for dancing but not caring to pursue a latter-day approach to such a firmly-guiding rhythm. This one movement from this one sonata may thus serve as a valuable probe into a mind-in-formation that would subsequently rise to the occasion of crafting those final sonatas.