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SCHUBERT Piano Sonatas

No 13 D784; No 18 D894

Howard Shelley (fortepiano)


Amon Ra / CD-SAR13


If you collect Schubert on period instruments, you will find this disc enjoyable, utterly authentic. You will be pleased at its re-issue over twenty years after being recorded, and at a further chance to showcase the Finchcocks Collection, which is tended with love and scholarly attention (Richard Burnett, the owner and a distinguished performer himself, writes the notes both on the music and the c1814 Fritz Viennese instrument).


If you are NOT used to Schubert on the fortepiano, some features of the performances will come as a surprise. At eleven minutes, the first movement of D894 comes in at only one-third the length of the legendary Richter recording – admittedly, without an exposition repeat. While many, including me, find that Richter view unbearably slow, there is no doubt that D894 is generally played by modern pianists as a large-scale, discursive, relaxed work. Listen, for example, to the extraordinarily beautiful passage of lilting semiquaver writing just before the exposition (and recap) end. Modern pianists linger over it as if it were a slow drip of sweet honey, fortepianists compress it – the faster notes intensifying the sense of expectation before the development.


The differences in the experience of hearing Schubert on the fortepiano are entirely expected – the period instrument sustains less, it has more pedals to enable a technological means of graduating dynamics (we know Schubert's fondness for writing pppp or ffff ), what we hear is lither, more athletic, generally faster, with a far more immediate apprehension especially of modulation and emotional change.


D784, though overall a shorter work, also becomes tauter, more percussive, on the earlier instrument. The last movement, which I have always felt must have been in Smetana's mind when he wrote Vlatava , gives the listener an (intentional) sense of unease and disquiet, its octave chords a hollow resolution to the perpetuum mobile scurrying of the main theme.


But these conclusions do not necessarily arise from the period instrument. The doyen of Schubert pianists, Alfred Brendel, not only by his interpretations but also in a closely argued essay published in Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts , wanted to show that Schubert was full of drama and intensity, not like the gentle contours of the stereotypical Austrian landscape round Vienna.


There is no right or wrong here – if you listen to how skilfully Grigory Sokolov uses the extended colour palette of the modern piano to vary the repetitive sequences in the finale of D894, you would be inclined to bring out, by analogy for Schubert, the arguments about ‘Beethoven would have preferred to write for today's Steinway.' I hesitate to say that Shelley brings striking individual insights to these works. But as paradigmatic interpretations, they are very reliable and clearly played with the greatest affection.


Ying Chang