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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B Flat Major D960 [45.30]
Four Impromptus D 935, Op 142 [36.21]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 2017
HYPERION CDA68213 [81.51]

In his early recordings, Marc-André Hamelin focused on the works of lesser-known composers such as Alkan, Kaspustin, Medtner and Ives. Increasingly, he has moved into the Classical music mainstream, recording works by Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Haydn and Debussy. He has now turned his attention to Schubert and brings his colossal technique and consummate musicianship to the composer’s final piano sonata and second set of Impromptus.

Pianists have adopted a wide range of tempi in the first movement of the Piano Sonata in B Flat. The movement is marked Molto moderato and Richter adopted a much slower pace than many of his contemporaries in response to this instruction. Hamelin follows Richter’s lead and is marginally slower in this movement than the great Russian pianist. He brings all the ingredients of great Schubert playing to this movement including supreme lyricism, expressive phrasing and a wide and finely calibrated range of dynamics. The mood is one of sublime sweetness and serenity although the low ominous trill on G Flat serves as a distant warning which threatens to disrupt the calm. Hamelin plays the triplets with an enchanting lightness of touch and his phrasing is exquisite. Like Richter, he repeats the first movement exposition and the ominous trill on G Flat explodes with force in the first time repeat bars leading up to this. In Hamelin’s hands the development section becomes an elemental drama and some of the fortissimo passages are played with explosive power.

The opening chord of the slow movement conveys a darkening of the mood in an immediate and arresting way. The layered textures and chamber music sonorities in the opening section are realised beautifully. Hamelin brings an acute sensitivity and a mellifluous lyricism to the central section: his handling of the modulations and in particular the extraordinary modulation into C Major is nothing short of magical. The Scherzo is played with a scampering lightness of touch and elfin delicacy. This contrasts sharply with the offbeat accents in the trio which hobble the fleet footed dance in a troubling way. In the finale, Hamelin brings us face to face with the composer’s zest for life, with the opening Hungarian-style dance tune. However, the ambiguity which courses through the rest of the sonata is also present in this movement. The F Minor outbursts are explosive and the contrast with the ensuing playful dance section gives the music a manic feel. Hamelin brings the music to a conclusion with a brisk, brilliantly executed coda.

Schubert wrote his second set of Impromptus around the same time as the Sonata in B Flat towards the end of his short and tragic life. As the first and last pieces in the set are in the key of F Minor some commentators have argued that this set is a sonata in disguise although others have disagreed. Hamelin has clearly studied these works in some depth, so much so that he has composed a new coda for the first of the F Minor impromptus as he was not satisfied with Schubert’s ending. He includes the new ending in this recording. Pianists do of course add in their own material to some works or alter them in various ways. For example, there are numerous versions of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata and Ravel’s ‘La Valse’. Some pianists have altered the order of Brahms’ Paganini Variations while others have tried to complete Schubert’s unfinished piano sonatas. While I can see the argument for altering some works, Schubert’s F Minor Impromptu does not in my view fall into that category. While Hamelin’s additions are well constructed and consistent with Schubert’s style of composition, he would really have been better to have left well enough alone.

Hamelin’s playing, however, is quite another matter and for these impromptus he maintains the exceptionally high standard he brings to the Sonata in B Flat. He brings a nobility and eloquence to the first of the F Minor Impromptus and the composer’s dynamic markings are closely observed. The rustling semiquavers of the opening section create a magical atmosphere before we are propelled into the long dialogue between the treble and bass of the central section. Hamelin sustains the melodic line beautifully against a floating semiquaver accompaniment. He brings a gentle, wistful quality to the opening dance of the Impromptu in A Flat while the trio is pure song. The variations of the third Impromptu are characterised wonderfully: the second variation has a playful, quixotic charter, the third has a tragic grandeur while the final variation with its dizzying scales is full of delight. Hamelin brings a spiky quality to the final Impromptu with its pointed accents and cross rhythms. I was struck by the intimacy which he creates at the start of the central section before presenting us with the second subject including its flurries of scales. He brings the work to a close with a powerful and ringing rendition of the coda.

There are outstanding recordings of these works by artists such as Schnabel, Lupu, Brendel, Curzon and Richter. This recording by Hamelin is exceptional and it deserves to be placed in the pantheon of great Schubert recordings alongside these artists.

Robert Beattie



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