TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 January 2017
In his notes to his recording of the complete Schubert sonatas, Wilhelm Kempff quotes a comment about Schubert attributed to the composer's friend and patron, the singer Johann Michael Vogl:
"'You see', Vogl was usually heard to say in a low voice, indicating with a sideways glance, when Schubert stood lost in thought, unaware of his surroundings, "the man has no idea what is alive within him! It is an inexhaustible flood!"
With their introspection, long wandering themes, spontaneity, lyricism, and frequent pregnant pauses, Schubert's piano sonatas are an inexhaustible flood indeed. Most of Schubert's piano sonatas were ignored for years. Only in the mid-20th Century did they come into their own.
Kempff (1895 -- 1991) is best-known for his recordings of the complete Beethoven and Schubert sonata cycles. He recorded the Schubert sonatas between 1965 and 1969 in Hannover, Germany. The set is available in this 7-CD compilation from DG at a budget price. Kempff plays the sonatas with a restrained lyrical romanticism. The readings are quiet, meditative and focused. Kempff seldom loses sight of the broad structure of the music in its long, meandering passages.
I first got to know Schubert's sonatas long ago in LPs of Kempff's recordings of the final two: the A major sonata, D. 959 and the B-flat major sonata, D. 960. It was good to revisit these readings again after many other performances have been sandwiched between in the course of years. The A major, in particular, receives an outstanding performance as Kempff brings out the flailing sorrow of the second movement and the serene musical lyricism of the finale. Beyond these two final masterworks, I had not heard Kempff's Schubert sonatas until I purchased this set.
I wanted to hear Kempff's reading of an earlier A major sonata, D. 664, opus 120, because I have been learning to play it. Kempff plays this youthful work with, the slow movement excepted, a light joyful character. He also observes both Schubert's repeats in the opening movement. While Kempff's reading of this music is idiomatic and convincing, it reminded me of the many possibilities of interpretation for this deceptively simple and apparently naive score. I also enjoyed Kempff's readings of the sonata in a minor, D. 784, opus 143, a lyrical work of a different character from its A major companion that was composed at about the same time. It is among several of the many Schubert sonatas that deserve to be better known.
Other outstanding performances include the long, tragic c minor sonata, D. 958, part of the final trilogy composed in the last months of Schubert's life together with the A major, D. 959, and B-flat major, D. 960, sonatas. The extensive, late G major sonata, D. 894, opus 78, receives a somewhat lighter interpretation at Kempff's hands, than under many other readings of this transcendent work. Kempff brings out the heroic, large scale qualities of the D major sonata, D. 850, opus 53, the tragic qualities of the A minor sonata, D. 845, opus 42, and the stunning, unfinished sonata in C major, D. 840, known as the "Relique".
Besides Kempff's own introduction to the sonatas, this set includes a good introductory analysis, "Form and Feeling in the Schubert Sonatas" by John Reed together with a chronology. Both will be useful to the new listener. Given the music, the performance, and the low price, this set is a treasure both for listeners new to Schubert and to those listeners who have not yet heard Kempff's recordings. This is music to hear when you are alone with yourself.