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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Franz Schubert, Andras Schiff

The singular beauty of Franz Schubert's solo piano music hit me dramatically sometime around age 18. It changed my idea of what could be said musically without an overemphasis on pyrotechnics or high drama. It was a music without pretensions. Long unfolding and enfolding melodic-harmonic brilliance without end, music so lyrically strong it spoke directly through the ages to your inmost musical being. I never went back. Schubert has been a part of me ever since.

So even though I have had some favorite performances of most all the Schubert solo works (mostly on vinyl), I was pleased to receive a new two-CD set of gems by the remarkable modern pianist Andras Schiff. The set is simply called Franz Schubert (ECM New Series 2425/26 4811572).

The first thing you notice: this is Schubert in vivid period performance, played on a very sonically alive Franz Brodman fortepiano manufactured in Vienna around 1820. I have never had trouble with the best readings of Schubert on a modern instrument, but nonetheless the piano featured here is more in line with the balance of timbres and dynamics as Schubert himself experienced them, not to mention the intimate friends-listeners in a Schubertiade evening.

Add to that Schiff's careful selection of some of the most brilliantly unpretentious works for performance. The glorious "Moments musicaux, op. 17," the Sonatas D894 and D960, the "Vier Impromptus D93," etc. These are some of the finest of the Schubert piano works, not necessarily the most overtly difficult to play on the surface, but those that demand an artist's poetic touch, lyrical, unendingly melodic masterpieces.

Schiff most certainly is a pianist who totally immerses himself in the magic of this music. He is not out to impress with showmanship, but rather to get deeply inside the music and the subtlety of phrasing. He does that so well here. And the sound of the 1820 Brodman is a revelation. Each register has its own special sound, which is typical of the early pianos, so that the colors of the music and the original balance in passagework comes through strikingly, thanks of course to Maestro Schiff's careful attention to the phrasing as it sounds on the old instruments.

The result is a set of interpretations that brings out even more strongly the melodic beauty of the music. The parts are transparently singular, which a great period piano performance by a master allows you to hear as never before. The modern piano versions can be wonderful, of course, but you do get a different balance, as registers that tend to ring out more sonorously may take a larger sonic space than Schubert intended.

Schiff allows you to hear the music all over again. It takes someone of the extraordinary musical caliber of Andras Schiff to make it work in the highest poetic way. He does it throughout the set. It is marvelous Schubert to begin with. And Schiff makes it all the more stunning.

If you don't have much Schubert piano music, here is a place to start. If you have been all over Schubert's music, here is a place to return to and hear the music in a new revelatory light. Fabulous!

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