Barry Douglas – Schubert Works for Solo Piano, Volume 5 – Sonatas D784 & D850 [Chandos]

Schubert - Works For Piano Vol. 5 [Barry Douglas] [Chandos Records - CHAN 20157]
5 of 5 stars

Schubert
Piano Sonata in A-minor, D784
Piano Sonata in D, D850
Schubert, trans. Liszt
Liebesbotschaft, D957/1; Ständchen, D957/4

Barry Douglas (piano)

Recorded 29 & 30 November 2019 in Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music, Bishopstown, Cork, Ireland


Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: November 2020
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 20157
Duration: 72 minutes

Barry Douglas’s Chandos Schubert cycle is one of the unmitigated triumphs of recent years. I remember welcoming Volume III with a review that could have occupied a chapter but in the end ran to less than 250 words. “There’s nothing to say about this release. Conversely everything.” [https://www.classicalsource.com/cd/barry-douglas-schubert-works-for-solo-piano-volume-3-sonata-d958-moments-musicaux-chandos/].

Pairing two of the great Sonatas of the early-1820s, this latest release continues the voyage. All repeats, epic realisation, not a moment compromised nor a corner sacrificed. One doesn’t need to make a case for this music. History long ago did that. What Douglas manages is to take us down fresh roads, neither cultish nor fashion-referenced. This is not Viennese Schubert, German Schubert, French Schubert, English Schubert, Russian Schubert. Simply, pristine and unadulterated, the man’s melodies, voicings, chordings, dynamics and articulations before us, speaking in a currency without frontiers through the hands and mind of a pianist without pretentions or neuroses, conveyed through an impeccable Steinway nine-footer in an acoustic as atmospheric as it is analytically enabling. 

These Sonatas, from 1823 and 1825 respectively, the A-minor published posthumously in 1839 (dedicated by Diabelli to Mendelssohn), are big-boned affairs, as mighty and liberated in thought and action as anything in the late Beethoven canon which they post-date. Habsburg Hummel may have been writing interesting things in Goethe’s Weimar (the Opuses 81 and 106 Sonatas not least, 1819-24). But Beethoven and Schubert were a Jupiter and Saturn on profoundly different trajectories, both from each other and from the rest of their contemporaries. Douglas’s Schubert is a head-on equal terms encounter. Not an exclusively pianistic experience, more one of symphonised worlds focussed through keyboard lenses.

The first movement of the A-minor journeys from lonely pianissimo opening through sabered tutti (perfectly measured octave tremolos slicing the ether) to chordal temples hewn out of basalt. Ages unborn never far away. An intermezzo of an Andante, heart-aching. A tidal surge for the Finale, triplets tumbling down from mountain brook to flood plain, ‘Vltava’ next stop – how intimate, one wonders, was Smetana, a gifted pianist and Schubertian, with this music?

The Gastein D-major, contemporary with sketches for the ‘Great’ C-major Symphony, is a tour de force. Here a glory of pedigree engagement unfazed by technical demands. There a dazzling fest of tightly pursued development and ‘orchestral’ colouring, from heraldic assertions to chattering ‘woodwind’ and Wienerwald horn-calls, expressively intensified slow movement to driving Scherzo. Artaria’s first edition (April 1826), followed by the Gesamtausgabe, gives a quadruple time-signature (4/4) for the opening Allegro. Douglas follows the duple (2/2) version of the manuscript. In his booklet notes, Brian Newbould wonders if the closing rondo refrain is “a gentle mockery of an earlier classical style? Or is it a country dance, or a limping gavotte?” I’ve always thought of it as a kind of music-box poupée, the pendulum-swinging staccato left-hand, mid-register, marking time. Douglas phrases it innocently, water-colouring its ornamented repetitions with grace, come the end letting it fade softly among the trees if not quite out of hearing. Radu Lupu’s radically dissimilar ‘live’ 1981 version (Enescu Festival, Bucharest), a minute quicker, has a child-like gait. Douglas saunters a more reflective path. I wouldn’t want to be without either. 

Romantic pianism of superior order informs Liszt’s Schwanengesang transcriptions. This is playing in the grand style, ‘Ständchen’ in particular standing out for its pacing, texturing and sheer beauty of tone. Douglas is happy to take his leisure, encouraging the melody to breathe without swooning. The beloved, moonlight, nightingales, love’s pain.

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