SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959; Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Krystian Zimerman, piano – DGG 

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959; Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Krystian Zimerman, piano – DGG 479 758, 82:08 (9/8/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Approaching his own sixtieth year, Krystian Zimerman addresses the last two sonatas of the dying Franz Schubert.

Polish keyboard virtuoso Krystian Zimerman (b. 1956) recorded the two late (1828) Schubert sonatas in 2016, having “found the courage for such works as these and the last Beethoven sonatas.”  The impression Zimerman creates in these two grand, tragic works, remains somewhat quizzical: he plays with authority and decided resonance, with open affection, yet the tempos and long phrasings suggest a detachment and objectivism that we might have assigned to Alfred Brendel. Zimerman attends to the architecture in Schubert, careful to balance phrases and dynamics in poetic symmetry. The opening Allegro of the Sonata in A Major enjoys an elegant aristocracy in its octave leap and wistful triplet figures. Zimerman can clarify the polyphonic passages in Schubert without sacrificing their grace.

The Andantino movement likely rivals the second movement in the Beethoven Seventh Symphony for tragic utterance, and Zimerman respects Schubert’s huge tempest that erupts mid-way, much in the spirit of a grieved Bach study. The Scherzo has fleet energy; but even so recalls—by the two quarter notes in descending octave that had haunted the left hand in the opening movement—a sense of fragility that colors the otherwise transparent mood. Zimerman saves his real passion for the Rondo: Allegretto, based on a melody prior used in the Sonata in A Minor, D. 537.  Schubert employs a host of mercurial techniques here, including rondo-sonata and variation form that hearken to Haydn. Zimerman provides a forceful momentum throughout, and his fortes ring with conviction. Whether the whole has been consistently wrought the listener will decide for himself.

The B-flat Sonata has been described—by Carmine Arena—as an epic testament to Schubert’s fear, or hatred of, loss. The huge melody that sings of the life-force suffers the low, left hand trill of disruption. The ornament becomes fortissimo at the end of the exposition, a commentary upon the vulnerability of our projects. Zimerman takes the exposition repeat, having established a dire transition at the end of the exposition, and thereby imbues the intrusive trill will further menace. The music moves between spacious bounty in B-flat to a dire sense of catastrophe in c-sharp minor. Zimerman’s expansive reading has both breadth and sustained authority, although, once more, we feel an architectural “caution” that often restrains what might have evolved as Dionysiac ecstasy.

The Andante sostenuto no less commits us to a paradox: a song of valediction seems tied to a morbid, “dancing” sense of detachment,  The c-sharp minor song finds not relief in the middle section’s A Major, but tragic resignation, almost reminiscent of Orpheus’ lament in Gluck, where too the major mode only adds a bitter poignancy to the affect.  Zimerman lingers over the long, opening gestures on this “sarabande” from Schubert’s heart. I must admire Zimerman’s legato, a singing line that equals my recent experience in auditioning Jorge Federico Osorio’s rendition of this magnificent movement. Zimerman once more lingers over the da capo elements of this wondrous swan-song of “heavenly length,” which will earn either praise for rapture or blame for indulgence. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace emerges fleetly and sharply accented; but with its con delicatezza instruction, we wonder if Zimerman’s brisk aggression has not protested too much. Zimerman’s resonant bass chords, however, add a definite luster to the occasion. The finale, Allegro ma non troppo, allows Zimerman to relish—listen to his attack on the opening note—the alterations of major and minor that vacillate in Schubert’s sense of mortality. The delight in the playful figures meets the potent confrontation with ineluctable fate, and the explosive effect proves genuinely thrilling. Now, Zimerman’s Apollinian love of balance finds a gratifying vehicle and produces, for me, an experience close to my heart’s most revered realization of this work many years ago at SUNY Binghamton, rendered by a young Lorin Hollander.

—Gary Lemco


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