SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894; MOZART: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511; BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles, Op. 126 – Menahem Pressler, p. – La Dolce Volta LDV 12, 74:56 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi](12/10/13) ****:
Menahem Pressler (b. 1923) recorded this recital at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, 20-22 May 2013. Pressler has become, by sheer longevity and unceasing activity, among the revered icons of keyboard artistry, occupying a position exactly that of the late Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993). The major work in this program, Schubert’s 1826 G Major Sonata (“Fantasia”) provides an eminently lyrical vehicle for Pressler and his Hambourg Steinway, especially in its first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile. Expansively broad, relaxed in a spiritual serenity of its own, this music glides in 12/8 periods that often exploit degrees of subtle pianissimo. The entire contour of this movement defies “drama” in the usual sense of sonata-form, relying on dance figuration and variations on selected fragments. The modulation to G Minor promises conflict, but the temperament relaxes and resolves itself into a dew.
Pressler extends his non-bravura approach to the 3/8 Andante in D Major, shaped as a rondo that increasingly becomes ornate as it evolves. Pressler does not play down the darker moments, but they never interfere with the luminous sense of repose that dominates this score. And Pressler colors his chords most attractively, still capable of jeu perle when he wants it. The B Minor Menuetto requires some more potent staccato figures from Pressler, but the rustic aggression cedes to the molto legato Trio section in B Major. Some may find the degree of marcato and retard in the outer sections mannered, but the Trio glistens in a most jeweled music-box. Pressler retains the long finale as essentially dance music – not dramatic but soberly gay – a rondo in moderate Allegretto tempo. Schubert colors the rondo theme by assigning it to varying registers, high and bright or low and fateful. The brief sense of tragedy emerges, espessivo, in C Minor, but Schubert transforms it all too quickly into the major mode. The bouncy fragments of melody and rustic rhythms continue to wend their modest, meandering ways, leaving us with a song that the Mississippi may have sung to the perpetually young Huck Finn.
Mozart’s 1787 Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 remains one of the few solo works by the composer ever recorded by Artur Rubinstein. Perhaps Rubinstein sensed the various ways the piece anticipates aspects of Chopin, fusing introspection and sadness in a form generally associated with light and dance. Each appearance of this simple theme, with an obligatory ornament and the A in the left hand, jars us with some subtle variation, especially in a temporary move to C Major. At measure 31, Mozart invokes the spirit of J.S. Bach, exercising chromatic counterpoint. Pressler’s studied evolution of the piece emphasizes its emotional hues that draw on the temperament of D major happiness desolated by dark runs and diminished seventh chords. In its late bars, the figures might have inspired Chopin’s equally “baroque” Berceuse in D-flat. A sad elegy, this noble, elastically mournful work, rare in spirit and immensely difficult to bring off, unless one’s brow has been touched by Melpomene.
Pressler concludes with the set of six late Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1825). The lyric mode of No. 1 (Andante con moto) finds an icy foil in No. 2, set as a Bach invention with a dark bass line. Pressler’s touch has become more granite-like, shades of Sviatoslav Richter, except for the rubato. The Andante proffers a slow movement in triple time, a combination of Handelian devices and his own Hammerklavier Sonata third movement. For condensation of witty, even savage, drama, the B Minor No. 4 has few peers. The Quasi allegretto reverses the usual conceit and makes Beethoven sound like Schubert! The gentle sparkle of Pressler’s rendition rings true long after the last chord. The Presto begins with a “finale” that reverses itself and becomes a dance of noble gait. The upward scale becomes a motto over plangent bass chords that soon resound (ostinato) in a manner Liszt will find attractive. The last bars sound with authority and defiance, the lion in winter.
The entire La Dolce Volta production, by the way, means to make a CD package a luxury item.