Fanfare

What price big names? At a thoroughly well-established 53 years of age, Mitsuko Uchida is probably the most famous among this particular trio of pianists, though the 29-year-old Arcadi Volodos’s obvious star quality may well make him even more widely known before long. Anthony Goldstone, on the other hand, is an Englishman of whom, though he is in his late fifties, many readers are likely never to have heard. For all that, he seems to me by far the most penetrating, stylish, interesting, and downright musicianly musician of the three.

This is not to say that the Uchida and Volodos discs are bad. There is some fine playing to be heard on both of them. I have never been an admirer of Uchida’s – her Mozart, in particular, always sounds to me like the Mozart of someone who would really much rather be playing Chopin – but this instalment of her Schubert series, the first I have encountered, offers pianism that is clearly of a high order. The tone is often beautiful, the technique massively reliable. Yet the result is persistently un-Schubertian, mostly because every emotional point in the music is inflated way out of stylistic proportion. If you like to sit waiting with bated breath for the next note to materialise, these larger-than-life performances may be to your taste, but to my ears they are grotesque. At well over 36 minutes, Uchida’s timing for the six Moments Musicaux is about ten minutes longer than Goldstone’s, but the problem is not one of mere duration. Quite aside from what may be regarded as mere details (such as the failure to distinguish rhythmically between the grace-note and the normal 16 th-note in the third measure of the second Moment – the one Louis Malle used so evocatively in his film Au revoir les enfants – and the obstrusive rolling of chords that obscures the gruppetto in the trio section of the sixth), it is the vastly inflated quality of Uchida’s sentiment, and her imposition of a style of rhetoric more suited to composers two or three generations later, that ruins her Schubert.

Being a pianist who has hitherto made his mark in the music of composers like Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, Volodos might have been expected to incur just that kind of reproach, but he sensibly goes in quite a different direction, refining and simplifying his manner of playing to an impressive degree. He achieves some truly magical touches in the two sonatas, and some legitimately sumptuous ones in Liszt’s arrangement of “Der Müller und der Bach”. Best of all is the scherzo of the G major Sonata, which is gorgeously played, and Volodos’s way of slightly prolonging the third note in the main theme of the finale of that work is effective and never overdone. There are a few questionable details. Dynamics are sometimes a shade cavalier – there is no real distinction between ff and fff on the first page of the same sonata’s first-movement development. Volodos rightly observes the repeat in this movement (as he does in all cases except those of da capos) – but then the small contrast of tone between the first two statements of the main theme surely ought to have been moderated in some way the second time around, and again in the recapitulation. There is a textual problem in the Andante of this sonata, where Lupu and Daniel Levy include all eight of the turns that embellish the main theme in Schubert’s manuscript, and Brendel omits all but two of them. (His thoroughly convincing explanation can be found on page 149 of Alfred Brendel on Music, an indispensable collection of his essays). Volodos throws the baby out with the bathwater, dispensing even with the two for which the first print …leaves warrant. It is, however, when you compare the relatively uninflected character of this movement under Volodos’s hands that the ultimately inconsequential quality of his Schubert-playing makes itself damagingly evident. Compared with the almost casual way he phrases the left-hand part, Brendel’s, or Levy’s, ability to make the most ostensibly conventional figure sound like a daring exploration – without ever going beyond proportional bounds, à la Uchida – demonstrates the difference between how a musical language sounds when spoken by a native and how it fares in the hands of the most intelligent, conscientious, and gifted foreigner (and I hope that it is obvious that I am speaking about affinities of spirit, not accidents of birth).

Goldstone is a native speaker of Schubert in the highest degree. Reviewing his first two-disc set of “The Piano Masterworks” …, I reported on initial disappointment that gave place to increasing pleasure, and ended with the feeling that his was “an achievement that it would be niggardly to describe as merely worthy”. With volume 2, I went through a similar progression of response. There is an essential modesty, a bedrock honesty, about Goldstone’s playing that can be deceptive. Aside form a rather breathlessly rapid traversal of the finale of the C minor Sonata, which suffers by comparison with Brendel’s wonderfully tense steadiness in that movement, all of the performances on these two discs reach a high standard both of imagination and of technical mastery. Goldstone tends to like his tempos on the fast side, but he is never insensitive, and his impulsive willingness to take risks – for example, toward the end of the first of the Three Pieces, D. 946 – makes even a player of Brendel’s perceptivity sound unadventurous, almost bland.

When we come to the late A major Sonata D. 959 “high standard” would again be a woefully inadequate term to apply to Goldstone’s performance. This is perhaps the greatest version of the work I have ever encountered, either live or on disc. The first movement is magisterially paced, clarifying the distinction between long and short note-values – between, as it were, piers and spans, – that I have always thought of as central to good rhythm. In the superb Andantino – a kind of dreamlike barcarolle that veers from mourning to consolation, then to volcanic fury and back – Goldstone’s command is total, the effect he creates devastating. A very fine pianist of international repute played this sonata recently in Philadelphia, and when he came to the 19 th measure, with its diminution of the dynamic level to pp and its understated shift from F# minor to A major, absolutely nothing happened – the music just went on as before. With Goldstone, we find ourselves in a trice transported to another world. After this experience, I was holding my breath, wondering whether he could maintain such a level of inspiration through the last two movements. I am happy to report that he does. The attentiveness to accents throughout, and the character with which he imbues even the simplest left-hand chords as in the scherzo, are merely two examples among many that bespeak mastery on the highest plane.

All three of our pianists are well and faithfully recorded, Uchida with the darkest sound, and Goldstone with the brightest.

Well then , what of big names? Of the four last and greatest Schubert piano sonatas, my preferred versions now run the gamut. For the G major, Daniel Levy;…. For the A major, this new Goldstone;.. for the Bb major, Stephen Hough;.. for the C minor, well all right Brendel…is still unsurpassed…………..Meanwhile I urge Anthony Goldstone on your attention with all the emphasis I can muster.

—Bernard Jacobson