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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Sonata in B flat major D.960 [42.51]
Three Pieces D.946, E flat minor [12.02], E flat major [11.54], C major [5.01]
Bernard Roberts (piano)
rec. 2003, The Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, London CLAUDIO RECORDS CR5362-2 [71.51]
Bernard Roberts died in 2013 after a lengthy and successful career. For collectors his most significant achievement was the first complete set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas to be recorded "direct to disc". This issue preserves his performances of one of the late Schubert sonatas and the set of Three Pieces D.946. This last was published many years after the composer's death in 1868. The edition in which it became known was edited anonymously by Brahms who made rather free changes to Schubert's manuscript and seems not to have concerned himself with following the composer's clear instructions concerning a very large cut or, indeed, with the possibility that these pieces may or may not belong together. One must therefore treat the Three Pieces as a maybe-unfinished work in progress. That, along with the use of a modern piano, places the performance firmly in the category I like to think of as non-HIP. That does not preclude the possibility of an enjoyable half hour in the presence of a great master, which Schubert most assuredly is. His facility for subtly spinning a lovely melody over many minutes is as strong at the very end of his short life as it was during his early maturity. There is no such thing as 'late Schubert' but it is very easy to hear a premonition that the end was near in these beautiful pieces, the first two of which are quite substantial.
The B flat major Sonata is one of a celebrated trio of masterworks and is firmly established in the repertoire of all classical pianists. Roberts treats it with great dignity and a high degree of skill. Nothing about this says 'listen to me', this is pianism at the service of the composer. For me I would much prefer that service to be performed on a keyboard that Schubert might have used himself. There is a huge gulf between the capabilities of a modern Steinway and a Viennese fortepiano such as, for example, the 1820 Brodmann used by András Schiff (on ECM2426). The range of colours and dynamics possible with the latter make any effort made on a Steinway Model D somewhat monochrome. The result is that contrasts are reduced or entirely lost. Once again, this does not make Bernard Roberts' performance anything other than very musical, but it does mean that Schubert's 'heavenly length' is sometimes a touch overlong because the variety of sounds he would himself have expected are missing.
Claudio's Colin Atwell has produced his usual highly realistic sound and if you enjoy the received wisdom of modern performance you could do a lot worse than hear this CD. After all, Schubert heard through nearly two centuries of accumulated tradition is still beautiful, if somewhat less lively than he might be. The useful but short liner notes are by the pianist. Since the disc is labelled Vol.1 one assumes there may be more to come.
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