The combination of Schubert and Szymanowski makes strange, emotionally charged bedfellows.

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 14 in a minor, D. 784; Piano Sonata No. 13 in A Major, D. 664; SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 21 – Lucas Debargue, piano – Sony 88985465632, 68:00 911/17/17) ****:

In these recordings (10-15 July 2017), pianist Lucas Debargue proves himself no ordinary Schubert disciple, opting for a deliberate, thoughtful approach that often eschews musical violence for soft gradations of nuance.  He opens his Schubert portion of this disc with the 1823 a minor Sonata, D. 784, an often grimly turbulent work, likely related to a poem, “A Prayer,” that Schubert himself composed when alerted to the various bodily maladies that would eventually consume him. The dramatically fixated Allegro giusto moves in vehement, punishing units of sound, spare in texture, tragic in tone. Tremolandos and massive chordal progressions alternate without affording us emotional consolation, even in the key of E Major. Perhaps some relief extends outward in the brief F Major Andante, whose pianissimo unfolding subdues the mortal storm. The concluding Allegro vivace proceeds in the manner of a stormy Chopin etude, suddenly breaking off into a syncopated second subject. Orchestral thunder breaks out against vehement runs, close to the “winter wind” we find in Chopin. The parallel movement of the hands in octaves produces a frenetic display of angst-ridden passion, swooping or groping for a place of rest. Almost needless to say, the coda tosses us into the abyss.

The popular 1819 Sonata in A Major, D. 664 made its first appearance to me via Dame Myra Hess in a 1928 Columbia recording reissued on the Harmony label. A lovely exercise in cantabile playing, the piece occasionally reveals a tragic wisp of tragedy in the minor. Some commentators see the opening theme as an inversion of the Trout Quintet motif, rife with bucolic elements of the Steyr countryside and the use of a dactyl in the second subject rhythm. Memories of the Allegretto movement of the Beethoven Seventh appear. Schubert asks that the second half of the movement be repeated.  The bittersweet second movement, Andante in D Major, floats in brief phrases that proceed in modulated sequences, a style Brahms will adopt. The melancholy becomes haunted by a series of repeated notes and canon before the plastic harmony softens into a warm—if temporarily stormy—resignation. The Allegro has moments of emotional volatility, despite the general mood of easy playfulness and lighthearted humor.  Debargue’s fluent grace keeps this movement in etched balance, pearly and dynamically contoured as we move to the szforzando chromatics near the coda. Pianissimo and molto legato, the piece ends with the opening theme truncated but exquisite.

It was Artur Rubinstein who first became enamored of Karol Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata
No .2 in A Major, Op. 21
(1911).  Following Scriabin’s example, Szymanowski compresses a four-movement structure into two movements, The opening Allegro yields to a Thema and Variations, followed by an Allegretto scherzando e capriccioso, a Largo espressivo, and a final Fuga. The harmonic motion, exotic in a post-Wagnerian syntax, undulates or explodes with sudden fury, often in a rhapsodic, contorted fantasia. As opposed to his suave, understated approach to Schubert, here Debargue revels in titanic gestures and punishing, exploratory harmonic motion.

The ensuing Tema and (3) Variations opens in jazzy and liquid riffs, Joplin cross-fertilized by Debussy.  The first variation has something of Prokofiev in its hard patina and impetuous, repeated, staccato notes. The second (in the manner of a Sarabande) might hint at Rachmaninov, stentorian, then intimate and darkly hued. The music builds with a Lisztian fervor and authority, relishing the bell tones and thick bass harmonies, over which brisk, skipping chords move in memory of the Liszt B Minor Sonata. A kind of martial stasis imposes itself that breaks up into transparent fragments, while under it a slow, inexorable scale mounts molto impetuoso, con gran forza until the until the Fuga, which proves convulsive despite any architectural debts to Beethoven.

It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, but the technical security of the artist and his affinity for his chosen vehicles has made the journey compelling.

—Gary Lemco