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Versions of Schubert share seriousness


Schubert, Piano Sonatas in B flat major (D. 960) and A major (D. 664), performed by Radu Lupu (London 440 295-2); Schubert, Piano Sonatas in B flat major (D. 960), F minor (D. 625) and C major (D. 279), performed by Andras Schiff (London 440 310-2); Schubert, Sonata in B flat major (D. 960), "Twelve German Dances" (D. 790) and Allegretto in C minor (D. 915), performed by Stephen Kovacevich (EMI Classics 5 55359 2) As these three new recordings demonstrate, Schubert's posthumously published B flat Sonata is a very popular work -- perhaps the best-known of his piano works. Like all the composer's sonatas, it has traveled far from the obscurity it occupied when Artur Schnabel made his pioneering recording in the 1930s. It is now regarded as among the most profound and tragic works in the piano literature.

This reputation -- that for tragedy, at least -- comes largely from the influence of Sviatoslav Richter, who affected the manner in which this sonata (as well as others by Schubert) was interpreted more than anyone since Schnabel. What Richter did was not only to insist on taking the repeat of the exposition in the first movement, but also to expand the movement's time frame by emphasizing its "molto moderato" marking.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, most pianists took only about 13 minutes to play this movement. In the 1950s, Richter startled listeners by taking about 20 -- two decades later his performances began to take as long as 25 minutes -- and thus increasing the movement's size and gravitas. What sounded at times a jaunty work in the hands of pianists such as Schnabel and Clara Haskil became, in those of Richter, a profound utterance.

All three of these pianists -- Lupu and Schiff less than Kovacevich -- reflect Richter's seriousness. But they also differ from each other. Schiff's performance -- which is coupled with the earlier sonatas in C major (D. 279) and F minor (D. 625) as part of the sixth volume of his Schubert sonata cycle for the London label -- is the most delicate of the three and the one that revels most in what Robert Schumann called Schubert's "heavenly lengths." Schiff takes more time, for example, than either Lupu or Kovacevich in the sonata's final rondo and finds more music and sheer inventiveness in it. This movement too easily becomes over-long; under Schiff's fingers, one never wants it to end. The two other sonatas are also finely played. The only dissatisfaction is the somewhat boomy sound that works against the virtues of the intimate- and warm-sounding Bosendorfer that Schiff uses for his Schubert series.

Kovacevich's fine performance -- he made an earlier recording of this work on the Hyperion label about 10 years ago -- is the most intense and the one that is projected on the largest scale. Where Schiff makes the final movement cheerful and bright, Kovacevich infuses it with Beethoven-like energy and drama. Kovacevich's filler material -- the "Twelve German Dances" (D. 790) and Allegretto in C minor (D. 915) -- is well-played but musically less substantial than the works on the Schiff and Lupu discs.

Lupu's B flat Sonata may be the best of the three. Some of his concert performances of this piece have been so death-haunted that they sometimes became almost impossible to listen to. This performance, however, captures Schubert's energy as well as his poignancy. While he does not play it safe, Lupu manages to capture both Kovacevich's heroism and intensity and Schiff's intimacy of scale and sentiment. And his performance of the composer's popular A major Sonata (D. 664) is terrific -- perhaps the best since Richter and Leon Fleisher recorded it more than 30 years ago.


To hear an excerpt of Andras Schiff playing Schubert, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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