, March 2008
The first disc (8.557189) in Gottlieb Wallisch's survey of Schubert's unfinished piano sonatas was warmly received in these pages. This third and final volume in the series deserves equal praise.
Most pianists – even dedicated Schubertians like Lupu, Brendel and Schiff – tend to pass over the incomplete and fragmentary sonatas. As such this Naxos series will plug a hole in many a collector's knowledge of Schubert. This in itself would count for little if the music was uninteresting or only passably played. Fortunately, the music is unfailingly involving and fascinates as it illuminates Schubert's creative process and growth as a composer. More than that, Wallisch himself has all the qualities required of a top drawer Schubertian: the ability to float a phrase, to sustain a long lyrical line, and to maintain a firm pulse under a natural rubato. Others have made a case for completing Schubert's unfinished piano music, but Wallisch's sincere musicianship allows each piece to speak for itself on its own terms and lends eloquence to incompleteness.
The classically conceived first sonata, which comprises three completed movements and lacks only a finale to take us back to the tonic, occasionally finds its way onto disc. Schiff, for example, has recorded it. Wallisch’s performance places it in context nicely, paying due homage to its classical style and allowing Schubert’s innate lyricism and surprising harmonic twists to make themselves known without unnecessary point making. His perfectly paced account of the andante is understated and meltingly beautiful.
The F sharp minor sonata is much more harmonically adventurous. It shows Schubert experimenting with Beethoven's Op.27 No.2 model for a sonata quasi una fantasia, putting aside sonata form principles to investigate mood. As Wallisch himself comments in his detailed and highly readable liner notes - rendered into English from the German by Keith Anderson - Schubert does not quite manage to match Beethoven in generating dramatic contrast without the scaffolding of familiar form, though the first movement has a winning lyricism. Perhaps Schubert thought the same, and that is why he left the movement incomplete without recapitulating the theme. Wallisch passes straight into the scherzo, which moves at a good clip without sounding rushed, a nice contrast to the meditative pacing of the opening movement. The andante, which like the scherzo is complete, has gravitas under Wallisch's probing fingertips, and the final unfinished allegro is steeped in thoughtful melancholy.
The first two movements of D840 are complete and are often recorded as a stand alone sonata. Here, the first movement is lovingly detailed and the voicing of parts superbly judged - just listen to the way Wallisch shapes the second subject. The second movement wears its melancholy air lightly and flows with a natural rubato and excellent balancing of parts. Wallisch's performance of these two movements reminds me of Christian Zacharias' recording on EMI in its honesty and lyrical beauty. To these completed movements Wallisch adds the incomplete menuetto third movement and final rondo. Both of these movements start with bold invention, but just as you begin to wonder how on earth Schubert is going to develop his material, the music stops. The menuetto starts innocently enough but cannot find a way to modulate back to its home key of A flat major. The problem with the finale is a surfeit of thematic ideas - attractive thematic ideas, to be sure, but Schubert seems to have been at a loss as to how to develop them all. Schubert would later find a way to push the expressive boundaries of his music within conventional formal contexts, but these incomplete movements illustrate poignantly his struggle to achieve this goal.
Two small fragments precede the D840. The C sharp minor fragment is an exposition without development, but shows Schubert reaching for new sounds and thematic contrasts even though it is unclear where the music is going. The E minor fragment is, at only 38 bars, about half the length of the C sharp minor. Even though it is little more than a sketch of an exposition, it has a dramatic thrust that foreshadows Schubert's later sonatas. Both are illuminated by Wallisch's sincere playing which, throughout this album, is well served by the warm Naxos sound.
If you love Schubert's music, you really should invest in this disc and its companions without delay.