CD Review András Schiff Plays Schubert on an 1820 Fortepiano

Schiff schubertFrom time to time, I get a bit tired of listening to music. I have a huge music collection, and, every now and then, I get music overload; I simply don’t want to listen to much music, except as background, as a soundtrack to my working days and leisure hours.

But when that happens, one album, one recording invariably snaps me out of that lethargic state. In this case, András Schiff’s recent recording of Schubert piano works on ECM did the trick (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). I love Schubert; I think that, if there were a zombie apocalypse and I could only save the works of one composer, I would choose Schubert. His lieder, his piano sonatas, his string quartets, and especially his astounding string quintet are all works that connect deeply with me.

This new recording by András Schiff awakened me from my musical stupor. I bought it more than a month ago, and hadn’t had the time to sit down and listen to it correctly, but last night, I did just that, and I was amazed. Amazed by the quality of Mr Schiff’s playing – no surprise there, of course, given his long career playing the works of Schubert and other composers – but also of the delicate sound of the fortepiano he plays on this two-disc set of Schubert’s works.

Schiff was long averse to the idea of original instruments, but in the liner notes of this set, entitled Confessions of a Convert, he explains that “it’s evident that my initial views were wrong and prejudiced.” This is not the first time that Schiff has played on an original instrument. On a recent recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, also on ECM (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), he played the Diabelli on two pianos, a piano made by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820 and a 1921 Bechstein grand.

On this latest Schubert recording, he plays but a selection of piano works on the same fortepiano as the Beethoven, which Schiff has owned since 2010, and which is on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. Over nearly two and a half hours, this program includes the six Moments Musicaux, the four D 935 Impromptus, and two sonatas, the D 894 and the majestic D 960, Schubert’s last.

This is one of those rare recordings that captures a perfect confluence of elements: great music, an excellent performer, a delicious sounding instrument, and a near-perfect sound. You may hesitate about a period instrument such as this, and if you’re convinced that only the modern piano, with its m’as-tu vu sound and excessive resonance is the only way to listen to this music, then move along, there’s nothing to see here. If however, you understand that one can really appreciate music like this on the type of instrument for which it was composed, then you should give this recording a listen. Schiff plays this instrument with such joy and delight that it’s hard to stop listening to it.

Schiff presents a recital, a selection of works organized in an order that highlights the music and the instrument. This instrument is muted, it lacks the harsh sonorities of the modern piano, but that hushed sound also gives it a certain strength. You can hear this in the trills of the fourth D 935 Impromptu, where nearly every note is part of a run across the keyboard, yet the piano renders each of these notes clearly and richly. The intimate sound of the recording makes the listener feel that he or she is in front of the piano, right in front of the keyboard, listening closely as the pianist plays just for them. It’s almost disconcerting to hear a piano recorded like this, but the luscious sound of this fortepiano lends itself to such close miking.

Of course, the main attraction of this set is the D 960 sonata, Schubert’s long 21st piano sonata, here just over 39 minutes. Schiff’s playing is nuanced and subtle, but he doesn’t hesitate to use the full volume of his fortepiano in the louder passages of this work. The piano resonates well when the lower register is played, notably in the final movement of the D 960, but it sings in the more lyrical opening movement.

Two and a half hours of Schubert on this nearly 200-year old piano is a rare treat, but one can hope for more. Perhaps Mr Schiff has recorded the other four Impromptus, and a couple more sonatas for another ECM release. If not, I hope he’ll record more music on this beautiful piano in the future.

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