Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Schubert's last three piano sonatas

Which CD set?

That's the question. One must decide or be trapped within a spectrum of faltering discernment, leading eventually to soul-darkening monomania.

Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu, or Paul Lewis?

Overall impressions:

Brendel -- magisterial, immersive, architectural   
Lupu -- sensitive, poetic, intensive
Lewis -- beautiful, holographic, powerful 

Recorded in 2002 and 2013, Lewis's set benefits from up-to-date engineering -- the clarity is marvelous to behold. Brendel's set was recorded in 1972 and 1975. Lupu's in 1971, 1982, and 1994. But although quality of recorded sound is important, my emphasis here is on interpretive artistry.

In the Sonata in C minor, D. 958, Brendel somehow knows -- spiritually as it were -- when not to pedal. Those rare and ineffable moments are decisive musical effects. In addition, the listener senses that he or she is in the presence of an ineluctable, masterful conception. His is the best version.

In the Sonata in A major, D. 959, Lupu brings this score to aesthetic life as an aural morphing of sunny Viennese moods into a darker rhapsody. Normality, melancholy, and ecstasy blend into an unsettling triplex of intuited Schubertian consciousness. Lupu understands. His is the best version.

In the Sonata in B flat, D. 960, Lewis barely edges out the Romanian. Brendel's version strikes me as more dutiful than profound. Lupu impressively conveys this as a slow-building danse macabre but misses a certain required pulse of deep metaphysical seriousness. Lewis projects this last great sonata as a waking dream, both tragic and cathartic. In the two previous compositions, his beauty, holography, and power are overwhelming. Here, he applies the perfect restraint, bringing those inherent stylistic qualities under control, to proper scale. Schubert's spiritual imagination and precluded time are uncovered and allowed to glow. His is the best version.

Each artist claims one of the sonatas, in my estimation. So what's a soul to do now? If you've got the money, spring for all three sets. Schubert's late piano music is that important. If you can only afford one, I recommend Paul Lewis's set. Why? Because he comes up short by the merest of degrees on D. 958 and D. 959. As mentioned, he's perhaps too beautiful, too holographic, too powerful in those two sonatas.