Piano Journal, Issue 93, 2011

In the first of these two generously-filled CDs from Meridian, Béla Hartmann, a pianist with a powerful technique who, probably influenced by his experience of playing the fortepiano, plays with the clarity that comes from restrained pedalling and secure fingers, gives us two major works and a set of delightful dances doubtless intended for parties in private houses that could not run to orchestras.

The opening of the sonata, a mature work dating from 1825, with repeated quaver chords rising to a flurry of triplets, can be read as Haydnesque exuberance or as anticipation of the storms that burst out in some of Schubert’s late works. There is no doubt what Hartmann’s interpretation is. Even though its hectic quality, heightened by the bright, close recording, is not quite maintained throughout the first movement (played with exposition repeat), so that the “un poco piu mosso” at the end of the coda is only just perceptibly faster than the opening, there is no classicizing playfulness here and the bare octaves of the second subject and the strange hesitancy of the passage leading to the codetta all make unusually good sense in Hartmann’s highly-charged conception.

Hartmann plays the second movement, one of Schubert’s sensuously and lyrically loveliest, with perhaps a little more gravitas than “Con moto” implies. In the rhythmically complex, texturally-layered passage beginning in bar 41, the voices are too equal in tone, so that the horn fifths in the right hand and the broken division into tenor and bass in the left combine into continuous semiquavers; but when the passage recurs, the strands are distinguished more clearly, and the movement as a whole is satisfying. Smiles break out irresistibly in the Scherzo and Trio which are a delight with lilting country tunes and crisp staccato bass notes; and the leisurely Rondo finale, with its “un poco piu lento” ending dying away in ppp completes Hartmann’s clear vision of the Sonata’s unusual trajectory perfectly.

Presenting sixteen short Ländler, which were probably intended to be danced to, as a single track on a CD creates a problem. For dancing, they must be played in strict tempo. For a listener, variety of tempo and more rubato than a dancer would tolerate – and, if possible, the ability to pick and choose – seem essential. Hartmann for the most part achieves a good compromise and the individual pieces are delightful, though some dynamic variation in the repeats would have been welcome.

Something must be said about the notes in the CD booklet. Rather than elucidating forms, they present an interesting, personal interpretation of expressive content, which makes it all the more regrettable that they are anonymous. They give the autograph’s tempo indication for the first movement of the sonata (but not of the second), though Hartmann’s reading of the sonata conforms to its first edition, whose differences from the autograph are almost certainly the result of Schubert’s revisions. The notes also refer to the original second episode in the first of the three D 946 pieces, which Schubert crossed out but some pianists reinstate, without telling the reader that Hartmann does not play it.

These three pieces are some of the most disturbing and emotionally complex music of Schubert’s last year. Hartmann storms into the agitated principle section of the first, once more full of repeated quavers, but in order to maintain the anapests of the second strain he overrides the change in phrase-structure at bars 44 and 45, where the implied caesura occurs a bar later than expected. He breaks the continuity of the transition to the B Major episode by waiting at the double bar, plays the episode (andante, alla breve) rather slowly and ignores the p marking at its start. Most curiously, he adds semiquaver anacruses to the second of the left-hand chords in bars 133 and 135. The sole source of these pieces, which were not published during Schubert’s lifetime, is the autograph, and this (if the critical notes to the Henle Urtext are to be trusted) does not contain these ancruses. It is certainly likely that Schubert would have revised the music before having it published (and might perhaps have carried the prevailing iambic motif on into these bars), but second-guessing him like this is surely questionable. Hartmann also omits the admittedly long repeat of the episode’s second section, detracting from the binary structure and from the harmonic tension of the second time bar.

He shapes the second piece beautifully, the principal section lyrical, the first episode strikingly incisive and powerful in the accented hemiola bars, and the repeated quavers of the second episode in a hushed pianisissimo; he omits the second repeat of this episode. Once more, however, there is one questionable interpretative decision. Schubert marks a crescendo hairpin from the end of bar 6 to a mark on the cadential six-four chord in bar 8 which the Henle Urtext edition interprets as an accent; then marks the resolution on the following dominant chord p. He reinforces this eminently logical graph of tension by writing “cresc” under the hairpin. But the 1888 Breitkopf & Härtel collected edition, in accordance with a common ambiguity in Schubert manuscripts, reads the accent as a diminuendo hairpin, starting it on the second beat of bar 7. Despite the contradiction between this diminuendo and the explicit “cresc” marking and harmonic logic, Hartmann follows this older reading.

Once more it is in the last piece that he really comes into his own, with crystal-clear brilliance in the principal section and total conviction in the frighteningly expressionless D Flat episode, completing a valuable recital in which not everything may be to everyone’s taste, but which is played throughout with strength and integrity.


Michael Graubart

EPTA Piano Journal, Issue 93, 2011


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