Schubert Piano Sonatas
Schubert’s piano sonatas remained uncharted territory for an embarrassingly long time. Rachmaninov did not know of their existence, and their unique character and vision was usually obscured by lazy assumptions and cliches (their lack of conventional form, their ‘heavenly length’, their touching Viennese lightness and lyricism). Since those dark times a wealth of great pianists have come forward to give them their due, led by such pioneering spirits as Schnabel, Edward Erdmann and Kempff. Of these, Kempff holds a unique place and DG’s immaculate reissue of virtually all the sonatas is worth its weight in gold. No other pianist has communicated Schubert with a greater sense of his final transcendence of earthly pain and travail. For Kempff the sonatas are an exploration of ‘the immeasurable depths of Schubert’s soul, offering nothing for the out and out virtuoso and everything for those who find solace in music freed from all material concerns’. These words are revealing and characteristic of a blessedly controversial genius whose play of light and shade and poetic charisma colour every page, whether freely experimental or ideally structured.
For some his otherworldliness makes him insufficiently bold or confrontational in, say, the elemental uproar at the heart of the Andantino from the A major Sonata. Again, there are those for whom Kempff’s tempo and manner in the Scherzo from the same sonata are tricky, even salonish, and for whom his understatement at the start of the G major Sonata, D894, or his subduing of the storms in the early A minor Sonata, D537, are unconvincing alternatives to more obviously eloquent and robust performances. He is far less trenchant or speculative than, say, Gilels in the D major Sonata, D850, and yet invariably his range of colour and nuance erase even a lingering sense of Gemutlichkeit, of great music played down to domestic proportions. The first movement of the B flat Sonata is surely among the most subtle and haunting of all Schubert interpretations, the sing-a-song-of-sixpence finale of the D major Sonata a marvel of teasing wit and inwardness. Also, the writer who found the A major Sonata, D664, ‘full of the smiling lights and colours of a spring day’ must surely have heard Kempff play. Even as you long, overall, for a higher degree of drama and intensity, you are simultaneously made aware of a pianist who brought an Apollonian grace to even the fiercest Dionysian pages of Beethoven and who, arguably, found his truest voice in Schubert.
Kempff’s tonal sheen and translucence, his magical elixir, remain unique in the history of piano playing. You may feel that Edith Vogel’s claim that ‘Schubert is like Beethoven in heaven’ is a trifle one-sided, but her view is certainly confirmed by Wilhelm Kempff.'