Franz Schubert (1797-1828). We sometimes don't internalize that brief span of years, glossing over the brevity of Schubert's life as if it were merely another chiseled entry on some generic marble monument we all visualize in our mind's eye when confronted with long dead composers. 31 years and then gone. Mozart a comparably brief span, 35 years. There are so many others. That there were so many works from their pens is just one more indication of their genius. But I often feel a palpable sense of loss, a sadness over what might have been if only fate had been a little less cruel, a little less cynical. Playing this DVD of Alfred Brendel's traversal of Schubert's final three piano sonatas, I am grateful for what we have but Schubert might have given so much more had he only lived longer. And maybe he would have found the peace and happiness that eluded him. That struggle is mirrored in these magnificent Sonatas. It is also mirrored in the introspective, profound readings Brendel provides this trilogy of masterpieces from Schubert's final days.
Alfred Brendel is a pianist of intelligence and deep feeling. He provides superb notes for this DVD, revealing these same attributes when hunched over a pen. These notes are a roadmap for his performance. A brief review can only touch upon some aspects of his traversal of the sonatas. The Sonata in C minor D958 is given a dramatic reading, befitting this dramatic key familiar to us from Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Mozart's Piano Concerto No.24. Its extroverted sense of tragedy hints that Schubert may have delved into Opera had he lived. There is certainly something operatic in Brendel's grouping of themes into a series of instrumental arias; his playing of the second movement Adagio, in particular, is deeply tragic. It will be a hard heart, indeed, that will fail to be moved. The Sonata in A Major D959 dispels some of the gloom. A slightly sunnier response to the sadness Schubert must have been feeling as his days on Earth wound down: the old Viennese expression that heads this review, "Life is hopeless but not serious" seems especially apt here. Brendel views these three Sonatas as a trilogy of sorts so there is definitely a carry-over effect: the playing is lighter, less use of the pedals, melodic lines shorter, even punchier.
The final Sonata in B-Flat Major D960 is played as an essay in resignation, even acceptance. The stunning first movement Molto moderato, nearly as long as the final three movements combined, is powerful, dramatic, tragic and noble. Brendel had me in tears with his profound and emotional playing. Here, Brendel the intellectual crosses swords with Brendel the poet. It is an emotionally charged performance, one of the finest I've ever heard from a single instrumentalist. The rest of the Sonata is similarly profound, with an unflagging flow of intensity, yet Brendel's inspiration never seems to fail. For sheer pianism that is coupled with interpretive depth, this traversal of Schubert's Sonatas is as profound a musical experience that I've ever had!
The film recorded on this DVD was made in January 1988. It was fimed in the Great Hall of the Middle Temple in London. The Hall is richly endowed with what appears to be oak walls (it appears to be echt Tudor in provenance) and an exceptionally high ceiling. Sound is reverberant but focused, never muddy, always clear. Reminds me of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy New York, which was used to record the Baltimore Consort and others for the Dorian label in the 1990's. Similar sound. The film appears to be digitally remastered with one lone video artifact: some color bleeding that manifests itself in a violet glow around the cuffs and upper portions of Brendel's wrists. It is sometimes visible but soft and not distracting (maybe even appropriate). The image is otherwise clear. The audio content is available in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 Digital Surround. On higher-end A/V systems there is a significant difference between the two, with DTS providing greater presence, a larger illusion of space in the soundfield and a sense of "liveness" I have found in none of the other formats (including Dolby 5.1). Lower-end systems may not reveal much difference. On this DVD using the DTS setting, the piano's notes are enveloped in such a way as to provide the listener with better localization of spatial information. To the listener, the 88 keys of the piano "feel" like they are enclosed in a full-length keyboard, as if a real piano were a few feet away. Not compressed into a single point-like location as on a typical CD. The menu screens are in English. The video aspect ratio is 4:3 and the region code is NTSC 123456. The DVD lasts 105 minutes.
This DVD is a life enhancing recording of three seminal piano works. My highest possible recommendation!