Classical CD Reviews

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Minor; Piano Sonata in B-flat Major – Maria Joao Pires, p. – DGG

Portuguese piano virtuoso Maria Joao Pires adds more Schubert to her impressive discography.

Published on April 1, 2013

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845; Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Maria Joao Pires, piano – DGG 477 8107, 83:24 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Portuguese piano virtuoso Maria Joao Pires addresses more Schubert (rec. July 2011) to her impressive discography, including the 1825 Sonata in A Minor, which Schubert dedicated with an optimistic confidence to Archduke Rudolf of Austria. The composer felt he had begun exploring new regions of composition, with the first movement Moderato’s exploiting a common germ to generate contrasting materials: a lyrical opening theme set against a hammered, repeated note figure as a secondary tune. While the development explores wayward harmonic labyrinths – enough so that one contemporary critic felt the music could be called a fantasia – the coda becomes an independent entity of imposing stature.

I find that Pires does little to “prettify” Schubert: her approach allows Schubert’s dissonances their full due, and her own tone does not seek for the luxurious. A kind of sachlichkeit mentality dominates, a plain-spoken, searching parlando style that indulges the more aggressive aspects of Schubert’s filigree with controlled power. On the other hand, the tender outpouring to life’s hammer blows can, under Pires, assume a truly liquid and poetic character, easily reminiscent of his song accompaniments and aspects of the Impromptus. The darker sections, perhaps touched by the spirit of Beethoven, acquire a symphonic character in the extended coda. A lovely C Major theme-and-variations provides the matter for the Andante, poco mosso movement. Its plaintive, even rustic nature might have inspired Grieg. The deftness of the variants and their articulation by Pires easily suggest Hummel, who often visited Schubert during the mid-1820s. The scale of the movement proves quite large, with Pires’ once more applying the lion’s paw to the contrasting textures, especially in the third and fourth variants, whose might and long lines could be taken for Beethoven.

Beethoven again seems to set the tone of the Scherzo, a rather impetuous gesture modified by a contemplative Trio section.  The binary tune of the Scherzo will provide the subject for the Rondo’s second motif, an attempt to unify a sonata that often appears a meandering conglomeration of lyric and explosive impulses. Pires imposes a decided muscularity of expression on the Scherzo, although she does not stint on its dancing, peasant character. The Trio, however, enjoys a rarifed, melancholy beauty, haunted by tolling bells, the sad moment an allusion to the valedictory moments in Rosamunde. A frisky moto-perpetuo sets the tone of the Rondo, though its secondary impulse takes its pesant character from the Scherzo.  Pires imbues the rambunctious impulses considerable carriage and dignity, the pearly play as impressive as the left-hand undercurrents. The continual banter between fortissimo and pianissimo accounts for its genuinely excited character, which Pires realizes with devoted fervor.

The sonata of “heavenly length,” the B-flat Major, D. 960 stands as the culmination of that triptych Schubert completed in 1828. The melancholy opening theme, interrupted by a fateful trill, has become common parlance among pianists, although this recording represents the first for Pires. Nothing tentative in Pires’ approach here, either: her virile but probing account has much to recommend it, not the least of which is her dramatic poise. The funereal quality of the low trill at times carries as much Rachmaninov as it does Schubert. With the expansive inclusion of the first movement repeat, the Molto moderato opens out like a grand vista of some fitful ocean whose emotional eddies run deep. Once the development in C-sharp Minor ensues, the seascape pathos assumes a variety of meditative and agonized colors that seek relief. With the final chords of the first movement and its slightly meliorated trill, we feel as though some part of life’s battle has been, if not won, accepted.

Built from motifs in the first movement, the C-sharp Minor Andante sostenuto extends the lament for personal loss as a ternary elegy of piquant introspection. Pires’ left hand traverses four octaves to meet and surpass the right hand’s melody. In the midst of some poignant nostalgia, a truly tender episode of staid nobility emerges. A taut line and graduated dynamics preserve the Pires dirge as a moment of solemn beauty, especially in the final, consoling bars. The texture alters dramatically for the Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace con delicatezza, a movement floating between A Major and B-flat Major. Fleetly light figures pass between the two hands, crisp and unfettered from guilty chromatics. The middle section may indicate some deeper, off-beat sense of care and concern, but it passes away, a soon-expelled cloud. The final Allegro ma non troppo plays with two ideas, each of which alternately dances and cascades with Pires’ especial intensity. Pires tolls a persistent G that soon evolves into a melody that moves skittishly then passionately, often into Schubert’s idiosyncratic harmonic mazes. Some fine bass tones emerge from Pires’ graduated palette, not to mention Schubert’s lovely symmetries of motion. These are reverent readings of deep feeling and intelligent musicianship, certainly worthy of the Schubert collector’s attention.

—Gary Lemco

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