Schubert, Piano Sonata in A (D. 959) / Moments Musicaux, M. Helmchen
(released on August 26, 2008)
PentaTone PTC 5186 329
Piano Sonata in A Major (D. 959)
Moments Musicaux (D. 780)
Thanks to a piano teacher who foisted lots of her LPs on me as she assigned new pieces, the three sonatas and other pieces recorded by Artur Schnabel have long been my ideal of how to play Schubert (thanks once again to my father-in-law, who a couple years ago transferred the Schnabel LP recordings to CD for me). Keep the tempo fairly constant, avoid soupy rubato, make the articulation clear, and while the demanding bits have to sparkle, the most important parts are the melancholy movements, which really should not be morose or overly sentimental. Among living players, Mitsuko Uchida has generally been my favorite, with plenty of love for Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, and Murray Perahia, as well as a soft spot for Schubert on fortepiano, as recorded by Malcolm Bilson. Among more recent players to have undertaken the Schubert sonatas, Leif Ove Andsnes has been enjoyable but did not rise into that pantheon (mostly for a certain heavy squareness to the touch), Lang Lang a miss, and Jens Elvekjaer promising.
Only Till Fellner's Schubert seemed to get at the same perfect mixture of elements in his live performance of the sonata Martin Helmchen recorded here, D. 959, and Helmchen's first foray into Schubert supplants even Fellner (another Clara Haskil winner by the way, in 1993; incredibly, Uchida was only a finalist in 1973, bested by Richard Goode). Helmchen's tempi are not the fastest or the slowest, meaning that he avoids the extremes of frenetic and depressive, and he has a delicacy of touch that is beautifully suited for Schubert. That sensitivity affords this recording of D. 959 a broad range of dynamics and sound colors, even in the odd transitional passages that perplex or seem not to interest other pianists. The final statement of the slow movement, with its triplet-echo evocation of death, is a somber, plaintive whisper, and the scherzo is light-footed without being puckish. The op. 94 set of Moments musicaux have the same virtues, interior visions expertly drawn and tinted with just the right shade, evanescent watercolor or more lustrous oil.