SCHUBERT: The Last Sonatas = Sonata in A Major, D. 959; Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Ralph Votapek, piano – Blue Griffin BGR215, 72:36 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Ralph Votapek (b. 1939) has endured as a potent American virtuoso whose pedagogy with Rosina Lhevinne and Robert Goldsand here, in the music of the late Schubert–recorded 10-11 March 2010–pays intelligent and forceful dividends. Votapek takes the first movement of Schubert’s 1828 A Major Sonata–more often played for its autumnal lyricism–with a passionate vehemence that does not, however, sacrifice the singing line, despite the sense of mortality that informs its message. Votapek maintains a steady fluid motion that embraces the shifting moods and declamations that infiltrate the opening materials’ mordant fanfares. The long-breathed spaces between phrases provokes our finite sense of “Time’s winged chariot” in Marvell or Keats’s thoughts on “When I have fears that I shall cease to be.”
The F-sharp Minor Andantino occupies its own world, a vale of heroic anguish marked by sighs forged from descending second chords. The spirit of tragic Bach dominates the middle section, harshly polyphonic and chromatic–in C-sharp Minor–whose immense paroxysm of despair still haunts the da capo section, even in the face of Votapek’s velvet strokes. Votapek plays the Scherzo for its kaleidoscopic colors in C Major and C-sharp Minor, the figures gruffly rustic. The middle section scampers in the mode of Weber or Mendelssohn, and Votapek’s slight ritards allow a ray of sunlight into the deft amalgam of flowers and pearls. The last movement basks in sunny triplets, gracious and varied in palette, modulating between C-sharp Minor and F-sharp Major. Votapek emphasizes the running motion of the piece, its limitless capacity for dramatic song and graduated nuance. The plastic rondo grows in stature and deep beauty, its various rills and streams expanding from the Alpha to Omega of human experience, driven by Votapek’s fiercely commanding, tenderly attentive overview.
The “heavenly length” of the B-flat Sonata invites Votapek to a grand statement of the first movement’s imposing architecture, the serene melody’s suffering occasional disruptions by the dark G-flat trill in the bass line. A sentiment of the pain of loss, the music does all it can to retain each of the impulses it presents, both discursively and lyrically. What drama evolves centers on the gravity of D Minor, as if Schubert’s fancy– like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown–wishes to contemplate the gloomy doomed versions of himself. Votapek’s consistently muscular approach heightens the clarity of the struggle, his top line the essence of sung optimism. The A Major Andante concedes that despair and sorrow dominate, although the middle section proffers rays of light. To play the aerial melody–much in the manner of the late Impromptus–that rises above the dolor must be bliss, as Votapek realizes it. The four-beat pattern of fate soon insinuates itself into the tragic mix, and our glimpses of affirmation must perforce remain temporary.
Scintillating ripples of light infuse the Scherzo, a playful moment of athletic enharmonic invention, discoursing between G-flat Major and F-sharp Minor. Votapek’s graduated staccati and flippant roulades earn high praise for their lucid fluidity, his polished efforts well conceived in the tradition of Schubert playing we learned from Schnabel, Serkin, and Kuerti. The last movement may well unify the sublime and ridiculous, since the opening gesture seems trite compared to the monumental sentiments expressed prior. But with the extended series of runs in architectural motion and the plastic shifts of harmony, a deep resonance of feeling merges – especially with the block chords that ensue after a fateful lacuna. Runs and triplets in constant motion, the music under Votapek coalesces the colossal and the comic, almost a testament to the quodlibet in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The last sweet sequence of opposing scales dwells in an exalted space, then falters a moment to recollect that timely awareness of mortality that makes all heard music sweet.