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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in C Minor Op Post. D958 [32.10]
Six Moments musicaux Op 94 D780 [31.58]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) / Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
‘Sei mir gegrüßt’ D741 [5.19]
‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ Op 72 D 774 [4.11]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. 2017, Curtis Auditorium , CIT Cork School of Music, Eire
CHANDOS CHAN10990 [74.00]

Barry Douglas has just finished recording the complete solo piano works of Brahms for Chandos to considerable critical acclaim. He has now switched his attention to Schubert and this is the third volume in the cycle.

Schubert’s C Minor Sonata is played less often than its companion pieces in A and B Flat. It was written in the last months of the composer’s short life and it has a dark, sombre character which may reflect Schubert’s preoccupation with his own mortality. I have always regarded Douglas as a very fine Beethoven interpreter but have not until recently associated him with Schubert. In some ways the C Minor Sonata is the most Beethovenian of the Schubert sonatas with the opening theme having close similarities to the theme of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor.

Douglas is always very good at projecting a firm sense of line and structure and this was very much in evidence in this performance of the C Minor Sonata. He opens his account in dramatic and imposing fashion and there is a muscularity about his playing which I like. He slows down a little too much for the E Flat Major second subject and the music momentarily loses momentum. However, it gathers pace again and the ghostly chromatic scales of the development section are shaped beautifully as Schubert’s haunting melodies take centre stage. Douglas’ performance of the second movement Adagio is one of the best I have heard. Schubert’s heart-breaking melody is tinged with sadness and the extraordinary modulations are breathtakingly beautiful. Elemental passions are unleashed in the middle section of the movement with Douglas coaxing rich orchestral sonorities from his Steinway. The sombre Menuetto has breadth and sweep and there is a vivid contrast with the major key section which is played with a powerful, burnished tone. Douglas’s tempo for the final galloping tarantella is well judged and he uses subtle rubato throughout to good effect. The sections with all the hand crossing are well executed although I felt the playing was a little careful and placed. I slightly missed the sense of relentless drive and momentum which this music needs and the feverish quality of what is in effect a night ride into the abyss.

Schubert’s Moments Musicaux were written over a number of years in the 1820’s. The composer never intended any sort of organic unity across the set and some of the pieces were published individually. Douglas had the velvet gloves firmly in place for these enchanting miniatures and he characterises them beautifully. The C Major is stylish and elegant and the Romantic middle section with its horn calls is realised brilliantly. The first of the A Flat pieces features some of the best playing on this recording, with the mellow opening chords giving way to a serenely beautiful melody. The playful folk elements of the F Minor are both boisterous and charming while the neo-Baroque counterpoint of the C Sharp minor is articulated beautifully. The second F Minor piece is very good indeed with Douglas injecting the music with enormous rhythmic impetus while weighting the chords beautifully. The final piece in A Flat has elegance and pathos but it is a little slow for my taste (the composer’s marking is Allegretto).

There is much to admire in this recital and some of the playing (e.g. the slow movement of the sonata and the second and fifth Moments Musicaux) places Douglas in the front rank of Schubert interpreters. However, I was not completely convinced by all of Douglas’ decisions and the playing is not consistently at this very high level. There are very fine performances of the C Minor Sonata and Moments Musicaux by artists such as Lupu, Brendel and Curzon. While Douglas is edging into this illustrious company, he is not quite there yet. The extraordinary beauty of Lupu’s playing and the rich humanity of Curzon continue to place these artists at the forefront of this repertoire.

Douglas concluded his recital with Liszt’s transcriptions of Sei mir gegrüßt and Auf dem Wasser zu singen. There is gorgeous layering of sound and tone painting in the former and a wonderful build-up of textures and sonorities in the latter.

Overall, this is a very fine recording and is highly recommended.

Robert Beattie



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