CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


David Fray's Wispy Schubert

available at Amazon
Schubert, Moments musicaux / Impromptus, D. Fray

(released on November 3, 2009)
Virgin Classics 50999 694489 0 4

Online scores:
Moments musicaux (D. 780)
Impromptus (D. 899)
Allegretto in C minor (D. 915)
Schubert's piano music can present a conundrum: it is often thick in texture, dense chords over large spans that sound best, ironically, reduced to near-transparency. Especially in the late works for piano, there is an ineluctable melancholy that pervades, a sense of the composer's feeling of doomed mortality. Pianists do not all succeed playing these pieces: Alexandre Tharaud fell short recently, while Radu Lupu, Till Fellner, and Martin Helmchen seem to be in possession of the Schubert gene. Add to that list French pianist David Fray, whose playing has impressed us already both in concert and on disc. Fray played Schubert on his first recording, the Wandererfantasie and a couple song transcriptions paired with Liszt for Atma Classique, which I have not heard. This is the first time he has returned to Schubert since signing with Virgin.

available at Amazon
B. Newbould, Schubert:
The Music and the Man

available at Amazon
Schubert the Progressive:
History, Performance Practice,
, ed. B. Newbould
All of the pieces recorded by Fray on this new release are from the last five years of Schubert's life: D. 780 (1823-28), D. 899 (1827), and D. 915 (1827). Most of these pieces are from the last two years, when the composer's fatal illness was at its worst: scholar Brian Newbould, building on previous research, estimates that Schubert likely contracted syphilis late in 1822, with its symptoms apparent early in 1823. The late sonatas, of course, are generally regarded as the worthiest works for piano in this phase of Schubert's tragically short life. It is hard to understand how Schubert could have composed so much music for piano, and the general wisdom, borne out by examination of the scores, is that much of it is not of high quality, churned out from the composer's improvisations at parties. Newbould wisely reminds us, however, that (all quotations from his biography Schubert: The Music and the Man):
No real composer, however, can produce reams of functional art without having his true musical instincts engaged from time to time. Schubert's dances do sometimes reveal the real Schubert, the creator of the tiny gem-like Lied or the moment musical. And sometimes a link with the grander musical forms emerges. One has to listen or sight-read patiently to unearth the treasure amid this bulky oeuvre, which in end-to-end performance would probably outlast six symphonies. An enlightened musicological survey of this field is overdue. (p. 339)
Newbould observes that the best of this body of occasional music, especially the impromptus, Moments musicaux, and Klavierstücke, "were well suited to performance by Schubert himself at social gatherings, whether they were musical evenings or artistic mixed-media soirées, but they sometimes touch the world of the sonata, just as they often embody the dance spirit" (p. 341). At their best, these pieces have a delicacy about them, traces of melodic genius coupled to harmonic and formal wandering. Fray plays them with a restrained yet singing touch that is both nostalgic, lost in itself, and aware of the impending doom that must have been at the back of Schubert's mind no matter how much he tried to escape it. Fray manages to capture that elusive quality, what Newbould calls "the essence of Schubert the somnambulist, lost in a world of his own which knows no mundane measure of time" (p. 343).

At times, however, Fray veers almost too closely to the edge of preciousness, with a sense of rubato that borders on the cloying -- if not really crossing into it. He is able to make you think about these rather familiar pieces, the impromptus and Moments musicaux, in different ways, prompting me to try some of them out at the keyboard again recently, to attempt to reproduce his style of interpretation. I could not really do that, of course, but it is always exciting to look at a familiar piece a new way. Fray's recording also brought the little C minor Allegretto (D. 915, 1827) back to my ears after a long absence, in a performance that matches Newbould's description of this affecting miniature: "the embodiment of poetic thought of the highest order, matching economy and simplicity to brevity in a way that induces in an audience the rapt silence in which pins are heard to drop" (p. 345).

David Fray will return to the United States this spring, to play Beethoven's second piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony (May 7 and 8), under guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

1 comment:

JRD said...

I just listened to this disc last night! Uncanny.

I love Schubert's cascading melodies, and this disc has them in spades.