SCHUBERT: Duo Sonata in A Major, Op. 162, D. 574; Rondo in B Minor, Op. 70, D 895, “Rondo brilliant”; Fantasy in C Major, Op. 159, D. 934 – Thomas Cotik violin / Tao Lin, piano – Centaur CRC 3250 [Distr. by Naxos], 59:04 ***1/2:
This program bringing together the three largest and most important Schubert works for violin and piano is an obvious one, so there’s lots of recorded competition. But then these pieces can absorb a number of competing approaches because of their appearance at the crossroads of the Classical and Romantic traditions. Whereas its pretty hard to deviate successfully from the epically grand approach when performing, say, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, with Schubert, much more latitude in interpretive direction is permissible. For example, Gidon Kremer and Valery Afanassiev (DGG) approach this music with a certain Classical gravitas and emotional steadiness that matches Kremer’s brilliant but sometimes hard-edged playing. Other musicians cultivate the Romantic side of this music, while still others seem to hone-in on the Biedermeier sensibility that lies behind much of Schubert’s chamber music. From what I can gather, this is the approach of the father-daughter duo Pamela and Claude Frank (on Arte Nova, which I haven’t heard)—though a comfortable, drawing room–style approach is probably suitable only for the Sonata, written in 1817.
It shows a decided advance over Schubert’s three earlier violin sonatas of 1816, published posthumously as sonatinas. It includes a scherzo and trio, bringing it in line with the Beethoven model and features a more rigorously argued and lengthy opening sonata-allegro. But there’s still a breezy, optimistic lightness to this music; it’s the work of a young composer, as opposed to the very mature composer of the Rondo in B Minor, written nine years later. Schubert wrote the piece with the Czech virtuoso Josef Slavjk (or Slawjk) in mind. (Tragically, Slavjk was to die even younger than Schubert, at the age of twenty-seven.) Not only did Slavjk finally play the work but it was one of only three Schubert works to be published in the composer’s lifetime; the “brillant” in the title was affixed by the publisher, presumably in hopes of upping sales.
This publication probably brought Schubert some much-needed cash as well as hopes that publishing houses would look more favorably on his work. That was not to be, but the fortunes of the next work on the program, the Fantasy in C Major, must have given Schubert additional hopes. Played, again, by Slavjk, it formed the finale of the benefit concert held for Schubert in January of 1828, one of the rare instances in which his music got a public airing in his lifetime. But like so many of Schubert’s works, it wasn’t published until years after the composer’s death, in this case twenty-two (1850).
The Fantasy is generally thought of as Schubert’s greatest work for violin, and it does have all the hallmarks of Schubert’s late style: the ethereal almost otherworldly calm of the opening, which returns like a refrain; the constant interplay of major and minor; the pregnant pauses (Schubert had discovered the great emotional value that rests in music can have); and most of all, the amalgam of compositional rigor and freedom of form that made the fantasy the composer’s special domain. Like others of Schubert’s fantasies (the Wanderer Fantasy and the Fantasy for Piano Four Hands, D. 940), the piece embraces a number of individual sections that are tantamount to the movements in the typical sonata, including a set of variations on Schubert’s own song Sei mir gegrüßt, D 741.
Like the Rondo, the Fantasy was written with Josef Slavjk in mind, so neither work is a picnic for the violinist—or the pianist, for that matter. In fact, the Fantasy is notoriously difficult, so getting through it at all would be an accomplishment for the violinist of average skills. Fortunately, Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin achieve more than this baseline goal. Their performance is confident, big in scale, well-judged to hold together the disparate elements into a pleasing synthesis. Much the same could be said of the Fantasy’s less familiar cousin, the Rondo, here made to seem a work of equal stature. Cotik and Lin don’t quite make the Duo Sonata a piece of Hausmusik but do bring that lighter touch to the work that matches Schubert’s aesthetic earlier in his career.
The notes to the recording include a very lengthy dissertation on the interpretative decisions that inform these performances; it makes interesting reading but is too long and involved to abridge in any way here. But I can share the following observation: “[One] goal was to preserve the creativity and spontaneity of live performances by capturing the natural sound of the concert hall and doing takes from whole movements or pieces during the recording.” I suppose this “doing takes” to create a finished product in which errors of execution are held to a minimum is not really fudging things, and it does retain the air of spontaneity that the artists were hoping for. The fact that the recordings are taken from live performances is rarely very obvious, though some slight intonation problems at the start of the Fantasy and difficulties in tuning during the softer passages here and elsewhere are subtle indicators. Plus, there are some slight tempo fluctuations, not all of which can be credited to the adrenalin of a live performance.
However, mostly this recording does benefit from the spontaneity of live performance—another reason why it can successfully face the competition. There may be more polished studio recordings of all this music available, including my benchmark with Kremer and Afanassiev, but there is much to be said for the unaffectedness of the performances and the naturalness of the sound, captured over three days of concerts given at Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. The engineers capture the ambiance well without clouding, and there’s good separation between the instruments. This would not be a first recommendation in Schubert’s music for violin and piano, but still, for the dedicated Schubertian, it’s an album well worth hearing and considering.