Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Schubert & Schönberg: Sonata in A, Suite for Piano

"Ich fuhle luft von anderen planeten". I feel the air of other planets. That is the title of this new disc by the Chilean pianist Alfredo Perl. The line is a quotation from the poem by Stefan George that forms the text for the last movement of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2. It is used here to unify the spiritual complexities of Schubert's last three piano sonatas - the second of which is heard on this disc - with the new harmonies, or musical worlds, if you prefer, of Schoenberg's first full-fledged example of dodecaphony-the Suite for Piano Op. 25, also here.

Alfredo Perl is best known for performing the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas in London and several other cities. He also recorded all 32, as well as the cello sonatas. He has made a number of recordings of Romantic repertory and on this disc stretches a little past Romanticism in both directions.

Schubert's last three piano sonatas, Nos. 19-21, or D. 958-960 were written in the last few months of his life, along with a number of other works. They are considered the summit of his piano music, if not of all his works. Certainly, he never wrote more profoundly for the piano than at this time. Critics have famously pointed out the length of the works and some people perhaps do not have the patience for the style of development evidenced here or the overall lengths of the works themselves. Alfredo Perl obviously does not feel this way as he delivers a performance that not only keeps the sonata moving, but also shows the inter-relations between movements.

Perl's interpretation of the d-Major sonata can be described as more poetic than forceful. In the first movement the legato playing is very expressive and he maintains interest throughout. Yet he doesn't lose sight of the overall structure of the movement, bringing it to a close with a beautiful transition to the coda. The slow movement is somewhat reminiscent of the same movement in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, and Perl doesn't loose a chance to underline this. Again, his strengths are attention to overall structure and poetic feeling, but he doesn't lose sight of the danger of longeurs and keeps complete control of pacing. Perl's sense of pace continues into the scherzo, although I disagree with the way he took the trio. Perl's "structural integrity" also carries over into the last movement ending with an excellent handling of the coda - its tonal summation.

As stated above the Suite for Piano Op. 25 was Schoenberg's first piece entirely written according to his new twelve-tone technique. Indeed the same tone-row is used in all seven movements. Schoenberg illustrates his own idea that Baroque music had twelve-tone elements by casting each movement in an old dance form: gavotte, gigue, etc. Certainly the working out of the tone-tow in this context provides both a framework and a forward impetus that is not shared by some of his later works. Perl seems to realize this making the opening Prelude spiky and driven at the same time. The Gavotte is more pedestrian, with some questionable dynamics. This dynamic problem occurs in several of the Suite's movements and leads to a hazy overall impression, although Perl recovers in the final Gigue. Oehms' recording does not help: it is either over-resonant or muddy; the studio at Radio Bremen is a poor choice of recording venue.

This disc has an impressive Schubert performance, but a very uneven one of the Schoenberg Suite. Those who prefer a more muscular Schubert will probably prefer the recordings by Schnabel or Rudolf Serkin. Alfredo Perl's performance is more in line with those of Mitsuko Uchida or Alfred Brendel, but is imposing in itself. As for the Schoenberg, I'll stick with the old Glenn Gould.

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