SCHUBERT: The Complete Piano Sonatas and the other Major Works for Piano, Vol. 2 = Sonata in B Major, D. 575; Sonata in A Major, D. 664; Sonata in A Minor, D. 784; Sonata in A Minor, D. 845; Sonata in D Major, D. 850 – Seymour Lipkin, piano – Newport Classics NCD 60176/2,  (2-CDs) 60:24, 66:29 ****:

Seymour Lipkin (b. 1929), who won the 1948 Rachmaninov Competition and possesses credentials in conducting–having studied with Koussevitzky and Szell–as well as keyboard expertise, offers us a survey of the Schubert sonatas in three volumes. This, the second of the series, opens with the 1817 B Major Sonata, whose percussive, dotted rhythm dominates the first movement and has something to say in the second as well. Lipkin does well to balance the alternately loud and soft dynamics, still allowing the melodic line its breadth as it wends its way through the composer’s harmonic labyrinths. The Scherzo rambles among its contrasting registers with skittish aplomb, the accents clearly articulated, the rhythmic thrust encapsulated in a pearly and crystalline vase. A silken transition has us back to the Scherzo’s da capo. A rustic march-song completes the sonata, a bubbly, dapper affair with a pompous gait whose spirit often belies its formal character in sonata-form.

The ever-charming A Major, D. 664 (1819) remains eminently lyrical, an extended aria from Orpheus. I find Lipkin’s approach a bit dry; articulate, yes, but poised and restrained in a way less amiable than competitors Hess, Cherkassky, and Anda.  Schubert thought of the piece as a companion for the Trout Quintet in the same key. Lipkin’s development section for the first movement takes off, however, in dramatically resonant tones.  Lipkin’s austerity, or perhaps unsentimental sobriety, works well for the Andante’s simple, unaffected grace. The final Allegro enjoys that “Scotch snap,” as I like to call its counter-theme to the resolute dance tune that opens the movement. Lipkin executes this movement with a forceful authority–along with his noble, pearly play–I prefer over his demure stance in the first two movements.

The A Minor Sonata, D. 784 (1823) ranks among the mature works in Schubert’s opera, a disturbed, spiritually weary piece whose dotted rhythms cast a funereal glow. Lipkin’s trill and broken chords capture its uncompromising, tragic agony.  The softer periods merely create nuances of gray and black, the deep-hued world of Rembrandt. Lipkin carefully modulates the immense, often sweeping scale of the first movement, doling out crescendi and responsorial diminuendi in terraced application.  The recapitulation retains its anger, even proceeding to a coda whose last cadence leaves us just as unnerved. The Andante purports to be in F Major, the melody pondering, waiting for a response, a chain of triplets, etude-like. We move to C Major and then back to F Major, but our spirit has not found rest. The last movements sounds like a mazy cross of Schumann and Moszkowski, sometimes ringing with a fortissimo to shatter the vault of heaven. If E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kreisler were behind the aggressive flurry of mirrors and shadows, I would not be surprised.

The 1825 A Minor Sonata (“Grand” Sonata), D. 842 allows Lipkin the kind of scope he and the composer can savor in a variety of moods and colors, its emotional range concomitant with the large C Major Symphony. Quick, martial, non-legato chords play against an urge for autumnal, deep, mysterious song that emerges from a valley of despair.

Echoes of the Wanderer Fantasy and the big C Major for Violin and Piano haunt this emotionally adventurous, first movement. A set of C Major variations constitutes the second movement, Andante con moto. Lipkin moves from relative simplicity to harmonic and emotional complexity, culminating in a fierce C Minor variant, which relents into A-flat Major. An antique atmosphere–almost a feeling of a chaconne–permeates this movement, Schubert taking his cues from Handel or Purcell, although the B-flat Impromptu uses many of the same techniques. The movement ends with subdued triplets in C Major, rustic, vibrant, tenderly resigned. The Scherzo and Trio enjoys a “symphonic” sonority, bright, a rough-hewn fox hunt. The Trio relaxes, a charmed song in lilting Sunday-promenade accents. The last movement under Lipkin proves audaciously extroverted, an incessant motion of cascades in melancholy tones putting on their best smiles.  Strong, liquid playing by Lipkin keeps the musical tension plastic, occasionally polyphonic, and consistently compelling.

We who cut our teeth early on the 1825 D Major Sonata, D. 850 heard the classic recording by Artur Schnabel. Born later–you had Eugene Istomin, Emil Gilels, or Anton Kuerti. Generally gracious and genial, the spirit of the piece might reflect Schubert’s excursions to the Upper Austrian countryside, Bad Gastein. Shifts in major and minor modes have become standard practice for the Schubert sensibility. Lipkin approaches this huge canvas forcefully, articulating with panache and brio its dotted rhythms and often, highly rhetorical gestures. The heart of the piece is its A Major Andante con moto, whose syncopated melancholy proves irresistible, a mixture of reverie and hunting horns. Limpid, tender, conscientiously etched, this music sings and sails under Lipkin. The expansive, even glittering–with shades of the F Minor Impromptu, D. 935–Scherzo accommodates a charming waltz in the midst of its percussive agitations. A music-box sensibility permeates the last movement, a Rondo in naïve, folk idiom, plastic, ingenuous, utterly unaffected. Since Mozart did not write it, Schubert had to.

– Gary Lemco