Review by LC March 25, 2005 (19 of 19 found this review helpful)
|Review: Stereo SA-CD
Audio System: Sony ES, Art Audio, Reference 3A, Cardas (see User Details)
I bought this disc to console myself after Sony cancelled the SA-CD release of Perahia’s Late Schubert Sonatas. The program offers three perspectives on Schubert. The centerpiece is the long G Major sonata (D.894), written in late 1826 shortly after he had completed what was to be his final symphony and final quartet. The recital opens with Schubert’s first, unfinished attempt at a piano sonata, written in 1815 when the 18 year old composer already had some 150 works to his name. Schubert never completed a finale for it. Volodos performs the work’s three movements, and then the big late sonata, before offering a moving reflection on the unfinished work, and indeed, on an unfinished life, in the form of Liszt’s transcription of "Der Müller und der Bach," the penultimate song from Schubert’s great song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. In a poignant conclusion, the suicidal protagonist and the brook in which he will drown murmur to each another in the common voice of the piano.
I do not own a large collection of Schubert’s music, but my overall reference among what I do have is Mitsuko Uchida’s cycle on Philips. Uchida is a master of sensitivity and nuance, but listening to Volodos’ performance of the G Major sonata immediately after Uchida’s almost makes me wonder whether she doesn’t verge on reveling in solipsistic nuance. Volodos seems to capture a sense of drive in this work that Uchida decides is either not there or not as important. This is not to say that he is rushed, however. Although he takes slightly less time than Uchida to play movements 2-4, he actually takes slightly longer to play the first movement. Benjamin Folkman’s remark in the booklet essay seems right: “While delicacy abounds, Volodos also gives unflinching vehemence to Schubert’s Beethovenian tirades.”
I don’t really qualify as a pianophile, but I do own a good number of recordings, especially of early Romantic solo piano music. There is probably no type of recording that frustrates me more. It just never sounds right. Philips’ sound on the Uchida recording is OK, but it’s a bit stiff, indistinct, and compressed. This didn’t used to bother me that much because I had reconciled myself to the apparent impossibility of a really good recording of a solo piano. SA-CD has started to change my mind about this, and no disc more so than this one. This is the best recording of a solo piano I have heard.
A studio DSD recording, the sound is immaculate. If you are used to piano recordings sounding like generic “piano sound” with unpleasant artifacts such as glassiness or muddiness, you should hear this. The piano actually sounds like what it is: a physically “grand” instrument with a huge range of sonic qualities available to a virtuoso talent like Volodos. The tone is just glorious, and the dynamics are tremendous. Pianissimo is palpable and fortissimo is never merely loud – the visceral power of Schubert’s “Beethovenian tirades” leaves the Philips recording, for instance, in the dust. Adding to the sense of tragedy one usually feels when listening to the late compositions of a genius who would soon die at age 31, the recorded sound has its own element of tragedy. This was the last recording made in Vienna’s famous Sofiensaal before the 175 year old building was destroyed by fire in 2001. The building, the site of numerous landmark recordings such as the Solti Ring cycle, was known for some of the best acoustics available to recording engineers anywhere.
Volodos captures an ideal balance between introspection and momentum in the G Major sonata, which is set in a thoughtful and poignant program. His performance here underscores how baffling it is that Schubert’s sonatas, arguably the equal of Beethoven’s, were all but ignored until well into the 20th century. The recording is true reference quality for solo piano.
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