Franz Schubert – Moments Musicaux – Valery Afanassiev (2012)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/44.1 kHz | Time – 01:10:56 minutes | 542 MB | Genre: Classical
Official Digital Download – Source: highresaudio.com | © ECM Records GmbH
Recorded: September 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Pianist Valery Afanassiev – renowned for his strikingly individual and deeply introspective interpretations of the music of Franz Schubert – has paired two often extrovert works by the composer: the set of six Moments Musicaux and the Sonata D. 850. Recorded in September 2010 at the Auditorio Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano, this is ECM’s second Schubert recording by the Moscow-born pianist, having previously released a live recording of Afanassiev performing Schubert’s final Sonata D. 960 at the 1986 Lockenhaus Festival that has become a connoisseur’s favourite. Composed from 1823 to 1827, the year before the composer’s premature death, the Moments Musicaux brim with song and dance, as well as Schubert’s characteristic mood swings from major to minor, from light to dark. The Sonata D. 850, written in 1825, is one of Schubert’s most ebullient piano sonatas – with yodelling-like melodies, simulated horn calls and strongly syncopated rhythms – but like so many works by this composer, there are passages with an air of nostalgia and emotional ambiguity.
Composed from 1823 to 1827, the year before the composer’s death at age 31, the Moments musicaux brim with song and dance, as well as Schubert’s characteristic mood swings from major to minor, from light to dark, often within a single piece. With its glittering surface, the brief No. 3 in F minor was one of Schubert’s more popular piano pieces for decades; but the ballroom-worthy tune has an odd tension underneath, as if the party were bound to end early. No. 1 in C Major has melodies reminiscent of the composer’s Winterreise, while the two in A-flat Major, Nos. 2 and 6, tap rich veins of melancholy, particularly in Afanassiev’s interpretations. No. 4 in C-sharp minor is another number that swirls like a woman dancing with tears in her eyes. No. 5 in F minor is the set’s lone thoroughly fast-paced number, although even its uptempo leaps have a brittle quality.
The Sonata D850, written in 1825, is one of Schubert’s most ebullient piano sonatas – with ländler-like melodies, simulated horn calls and strongly syncopated rhythms; he composed the piece over three weeks in the spa town of Gastein, so the environment undoubtedly contributed to the sonata’s high spirits. Yet, as with so many works by this composer, there are also passages in D850 pregnant with nostalgia and emotional ambiguity, especially in the Con moto second movement, which Afanassiev explores with meditative concentration.
Russian pianist Valery Afanassiev recorded an album of Schubert’s late piano sonatas that inspired wildly divergent reactions with its tremendously unorthodox readings. This release on ECM shares much with the earlier album, and it may too be one of those things you either love or hate. As with the earlier release, CD buyers will get Afanassiev’s own quirky but far from dull notes, which range over topics from Goethe’s Faust to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 to Japanese philosophy. Afanassiev once again favors slow tempos. They’re not quite as extreme as on the sonata album, but his approach is similar: he presents, so to speak, exploded views of each phrase of Schubert’s music. His lines are fantastically detailed without being particularly expressive, and this is probably what fascinates some listeners while driving others crazy. It may be that his Schubert playing works better in some pieces than in others. The six Moments Musicaux, D. 780, will really make you sit up and take notice. What Afanassiev catches here is that these works (not a set, but substantial little pieces far from the bonbons that the publisher-supplied title would suggest) were written for an intimate, sophisticated audience that would have gotten his Faust references and would have been interested in a performance that explores the structure of the music in the way he does. The Piano Sonata in D major, D. 850, is not nearly as successful; the limpid central movements simply plod. The very fine sound and the overall abstract quality of ECM’s presentation both work as X factors in favor of what many will still find a slightly bizarre recording, but one that can’t be easily dismissed. –James Manheim, AllMusic
Given the surplus of recordings of piano works by Franz Schubert, it is hard to imagine a time when pianists did not often play his works. But indeed such a time did exist when few pianists touched—even knew of—some of his greatest music. Luckily, over the course of the 20th century, largely due in part to pianists such as Artur Schnabel, the composer’s reputation as a musical architect of large-scale works grew. And as the number of pianists interested in this music has grown, so have the many modes of interpretation of these works. The two pianists here show two different sides of the composer—even of themselves—in how they choose to approach this music.
Paul Lewis, the rising British star, a former pupil of the illustrious Alfred Brendel—a noted Schubert interpreter himself—has recently been riding the wave to stardom. Hot off the heels of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, he has now turned his attention to Schubert. And perhaps he still has a bit of Beethoven in him: This Schubert is aggressive and it is powerful. Listen to the section right before the fugue in the Wandererfantasie ; with those added bass notes it sounds as though the world is ending. The fugal subject is not so much played as hammered out, though all with a roundness of sound which is stunning given the heaviness of the individual notes. But Lewis is not always so: The passagework at the composition’s end sparkles in delicacy, in clarity, and brilliance all at the same time. His approach to the A-Minor Sonata, D 845, is similar in effect. Here his articulation falls a bit flat in certain respects—his staccato in the opening movement could be a bit crisper than it is—but Lewis certainly sees the big picture in this work. He worries more for the effect of the entire movement than about the fussy details. That is not to say that he is not mesmerizing at certain moments (just listen to the way he tonally shades many of the more lyrical sections in the variations) but that the driving quality—that Beethovenian impulse—is at the heart of his playing here too.
If anything, the sonata lacks a little intimacy and transparency, but Lewis saves some of that for the smaller works. The Moments Musicaux , those later masterpieces written in the last five years of the composer’s short life, are scaled back. From the jubilancy of the opening work through the quirkiness of the third and aggressiveness of the fifth, Lewis seems quite at home in these pieces. The highlights for me are Lewis’s mysterious, almost improvisatory sounding way with the fourth of the set: The change to the major in the middle section is just perfect—the lilt given and the simple almost folk-like character of the section is superbly achieved. The pianist’s mezza voce in the sixth work, combined with his use of smaller phrasing, brings a true sense of longing to mind: One’s heart breaks at moments like these. The Impromptu s are equally well played, though lacking in certain character for me at least in one example in particular: The second in A?—one of Schubert’s true little gems—is sentimentally played at the opening: It is too slow, it is missing that characteristic lilt that Lewis so profoundly captured in the aforementioned Moment Musicaux . Were these four works to be considered together, as many do, as a sonata in everything but name, this movement would be the minuet or scherzo; in other words, a dance movement. Where then is the sense of the dance? But for over two hours of music, that is perhaps a small quibble.
Valery Afanassiev is a different pianist altogether. His sound to me is quite modernist in approach. Where Lewis could at times be sentimental, though in general I would call him a dynamic Schubert player, Afanassiev seems to see Schubert in an intellectual way: a contemporary pianist who plays Schubert as a neoclassicist might, devoid of the excesses of the 19th century. This may sound cold to some, but that is not the impression that I’m trying to give of his playing: He is not an unfeeling player, rather a restrained one in terms of overall effect. He too plays one of the major works, the D-Major Sonata, D 850, a favorite of Schnabel’s (who left a splendid recording of it as well!). The opening movement is jubilant and boisterous, though it is less driving than Lewis’s approach to the two big works on his recital. It is not to say that Afanassiev is not exciting: He is! But, he is also more interested in dwelling on the smaller moments: The movement, though march-like in character throughout, almost dances in his hands. The second movement is performed simply, but gracefully, with careful attention to articulation and phrasing; there is also a sense of the improvisatory (listen from about 5:00 to 5:30: The chords seem anything but inevitable, the silence pregnant with possibilities of what may follow). In Afanassiev’s hands, Schubert sounds revolutionary. The Scherzo, played a bit slower than I like, sounds like a battle between a rustic dance and an elegant one; the Trio brings a true sense of stasis, of simplicity back into the piece. The Allegro moderato also leans more towards the moderato side than to the allegro : Afanassiev plays it in 8:58. Schnabel does it in 7:45. What matters more, however, is his approach. Again he brings out the gentle and fluid character of the work: In his hands the work feels like a late 18th-century composition. The Moments Musicaux is here more modest in scope as compared with Lewis’s approach, yet none the less rewarding. Rather than a jubilant opening for the first, I would call this a bit more restrained joy, perhaps a bit more introspective than Lewis’s, a bit more like a prelude of things to come. The third one lacks the momentum of Lewis’s and falls a bit flat for me, though his approach in the fourth is equally beguiling: The work sounds more akin to a Bach invention than improvisatory figuration. Again the last, the most profound of them all, makes for a fascinating conclusion. Here the work is less suggestive of longing or melancholy. To me it sounds more hopeful than disillusioning.
These are two equally compelling and valid choices for Schubert, and both work surprisingly well. But that should be the case given the temperament of these far different artists: How one truly feels the music is how one should play it. The noticeable difference for me came in the sound. Where ECM was forward facing and clear, Harmonia Mundi proved to be particularly cavernous and resonant in sound. While, clearly, Lewis’s conception of this music is more in keeping with the 19th century, one might even call it symphonic, I believe that the ambience of the recorded sound does him harm here. Some of the details simply get lost. But that should not dissuade one from acquiring either—or both!—of these recordings. They attest to just how fascinating a character Schubert is, and just how great is his music. These are two you do not want to be without. –Scott Noriega, FANFARE
Love or loathe it, Valery Afanassiev’s remarkable recording from the 1986 Lockenhaus Festival of Schubert’s Sonata D 960 to be found on ECM New Series 1682 is one of those piano events which is hard to forget once experienced in full. Afanassiev recorded Schubert again for the Denon label in the 1990s, but these studio recordings never came close to capturing the live fervour of that ECM D 960. This duality of expectation made me enthusiastic to hear this Moments musicaux and Sonata D 850, but not without a little trepidation as to what I might find.
As the ECM blurb points out, these two Schubert opuses are relatively extrovert works, though as Radu Lupu shows, the Moments musicaux are also filled with poetry and eloquence of expression. Afanassiev lays the episodic nature of the C major opener rather bare, allowing the music to speak for itself but not giving the piece the same sense of natural flow which Lupu manages to introduce, while at the same time portraying individual character in each element. With rich piano tone and a fine touch, Afanassiev’s approach is one you can grow to appreciate, but might seem a little less than warm and welcoming to start with. The magnificent A-flat major movement is initially given fine expression and shape in this recording, though there are some accents which jump out rather than being prepared as you might expect. The broken-chord accompaniment from 1:34 is presented rather strangely, with the bass note separated and a distinct lack of pedaling. If you are used to Lupu this will seem rather willfully ascetic, though the singing line of the melody takes on a different kind of life in this context, and the drama of this material’s development later on reveals something of Afanassiev’s logic here.
The dance of the F minor movement is less typically bouncy than in many performances and about half the tempo of Lupu. Once accustomed to the slow tempo one can hear where Afanassiev is giving us an interesting view of this piece, but it will be another ‘love or loathe’ moment for many. The C-sharp minor movement is carefully etched and with plenty of inner detail, and it is only with the F minor Allegro Vivace that the promise of extrovert music making is delivered. The poignancy of the final A-flat major Allegretto is subsumed in a lack of breath between the phrases, and while the music has a fine atmosphere the whole thing could do with being less compressed.
This is a Moments musicaux which can fascinate, but will I suspect be a frustration to many. I think it’s probably best to ditch preconceptions about how one thinks this music should ‘go’, and seek the inner life which Afanassiev gives the music here. The playing is undoubtedly fine, and I appreciate the new angles we are given on Schubert, but this recording stubbornly refuses to become a favourite and seems to set out with this as one of its principal aims.
The Sonata in D Major D 850 is described by Afanassiev in his booklet notes as “an assortment of games played by Schubert and those pianists who condescend to become children again without incurring the wrath of their friends and colleagues.” Valery Afanassiev’s scattergun references and associations with these pieces in the booklet might be helpful in interpreting his interpretations, but are something of a subjective gallimaufry even when presenting potentially relevant quotes and pointing towards historical context. Of the performance, the first movement is rather measured, with more excitement generated by Michel Dalberto, though his is arguably a touch too far in the direction of precipitousness. This slowness is more apparent in the con moto second movement, which is very downbeat. There is more life but not much more drama in the Scherzo, and the playful element in the final Rondo comes across well, though this is one of Schubert’s movements I would challenge anyone to play and not make it sound playful.
I am reluctant to give Afanassiev’s Sonata D 850 short shrift, but the conclusion has to be the same as with the Moments musicaux. This is an approach which I am glad to say brings new points of view interest to works which run the risk of standardised performance based on received views of practice current or past. One thing of which you cannot accuse Valery Afanassiev is following trends or taking easy options. The problem is that, rather than taking up a position of significance in their own right these performances rather inspire me to return to ones which I know have given me satisfaction in the past, or which have inspired more recently. Paul Lewis falls into this latter camp, and it just so happens that his Moments musicaux on Harmonia Mundi HMC 902136.37 have already tickled my fancy as well.
Beautifully recorded and certainly stimulating in terms of interpretative controversy, I regret to say I doubt Valery Afanassiev’s second Schubert recording for ECM will achieve the same ‘connoisseur’s choice’ as his first. –Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Six moments musicaux D 780 (op. 94)
1. C Major: Moderato 05:54
2. A-Flat Major: Andantino 07:17
3. F Minor: Allegro moderato 02:17
4. C-Sharp Minor: Moderato 05:19
5. F Minor: Allegro vivace 02:05
6. A-Flat Major: Allegretto 07:07
Sonata in D Major D 850 (op. 53)
7. Allegro vivace 09:37
8. Con Moto 12:38
9. Scherzo: Allegro vivace 09:29
10. Rondo: Allegro moderato 09:07
Valery Afanassiev, piano