Schubert unsettles people. Cultural climates flag attitudes, individuals battle opinions. An Austrian's moderato is a Russian's grave. Presumed 'wrong' Schubert-playing destroys careers, assumed 'right' Schubert-playing sets one up for life. More often than not, steering clear of specifics, what defines or decides what is left unsaid.
This is the fourth volume of Barry Douglas's Schubert cycle for Chandos. Its strength is that it's Schubert supremely un-photoshopped. Irrespective of merits and recommendations, I find I have no need to listen to other versions or angles. He gives us the pages as they are, truthful to content and markings, the music and its grammar, not acquired habit, relaxing or pushing the tempo. This makes for a natural ebb and flow. The drama grows from within, the manner and debate is not imposed. Douglas is a challengingly honest guide. Traversing the present three Piano Sonatas, covering a period from 1817 to 1819, he pertinently illuminates the individuality and independence of Schubert's thinking – a Viennese Sonata writer singularly removed from Beethoven (whose 'Hammerklavier' was published in 1819), likewise the older Weber or Hummel.
Variously wayward and playful, “standing somewhat apart from the rest of Schubert's sonata œuvre” (Brian Newbould's booklet note), the B-major – which I recall Richter programming in London in 1966 – is shapely and articulate, its assertive back-to-back contrasts voiced with power and delicacy. The songful E-major slow movement is delivered with maximum expression and textural clarity, a refined essay with a grandly commanding E-minor episode. The G-major Scherzo glows lyrically, the Finale (cadencing, in the fashion of the A-minor Sonata, with a single punched-home chord, secco and decisive) aspires to the orchestral in its variegated colouring and discursive nuances.
The A-minor, the first of Schubert's three Piano Sonatas in this key, is bold, in Douglas's hands an energised study in tight architectural planning and radical tonal departure, fisted gesture and tender supplication, the pulse and rhythm buoyant, the outer-movement downbeats somehow dispatched with a hint of imagined double bass to send events on their way. Theatrically enlightening, masterful pianism.
The 'Little' A-major was the outcome of a Steyr summer holiday, most probably in 1819. Contemporary with the 'Trout' Quintet, “unimaginably lovely” countryside, and the company of the “very pretty” eighteen-year-old Josefa von Koller, it's a score mixing aurally deceptive simplicity (look at the layout of the opening idea, the graveyard of many a young hopeful) with bravura, songful expanse with determined argument. Douglas gives an impeccable account, toughened as necessary. The tondichtung Andante is one of enfolding beauty, like a frayed love-letter murmuring down the years. The Finale thrills, its runs (and Mozartean echoes) as glittering as fountains at play before two abrupt chords bring the curtain swiftly down.
Velvet acoustic. Classy production, engineering, editing (Jonathan Cooper). I wondered at times if the upper register of the Steinway needed attention (A-major Sonata principally) – but nothing that untoward.