Schubert Loses Out to Mozart and Schumann

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Schumann, and Schubert: Nelson Goerner (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.9.2013 (MB)

Mozart – Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, KV 282/189g
SchumannKreisleriana, op.16
Schubert – Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

This was, as they say, a recital of two halves, Mozart and Schumann faring better than the admittedly enormous challenge of Schubert’s final piano sonata. It is certainly not the case, though, that the Mozart and Schumann works concerned, the E-flat sonata, KV 282/189g, and Kreisleriana, do not offer great challenges of their own; for the most part, Nelson Goerner rose more than creditably to them.

The first thing that struck me in the opening Adagio of the Mozart sonata was the sheer beauty of Goerner’s touch – an ‘old-fashoned’ virtue, perhaps, but an estimable one nonetheless. His performance sounded very slow – it is an Adagio, after all – but that was more a matter of what remains the shock of Mozart opening with a movement at such a tempo; intricate sub-division of the beat soon revealed that actually the pace was just as it should be. Structure was readily communicated, and Mozart’s harmonic surprises registered without undue exaggeration, readily integrated into an adventurous conception of form one would be more likely to ascribe to Haydn. The second movement minuets were pretty brisk and directed, without sounding too driven. It might have been of gracious benefit to relax for the second (Mozart marks it Minuet II rather than Trio), but the experimental nature of the composer’s writing continued to be communicated – and experienced. The finale, however, was not so impressive; it certainly had that definite ‘character’ of a finale, but was taken at such a speed that Goerner sometimes skated over detail.

By contrast, it was the first movement of Kreisleriana that proved relatively disappointing: brisk, fair enough, but also with a certain stiffness of tone, and driven apparently without mercy. The ‘poetic’, Eusebius-like central section fared much better, though, with far greater flexibility. A dreamy, rich-toned second movement continued to make amends. When ferocity came, it proved far more convincing, benefiting from a truly generative spring in the rhythm. Its successor movement was splendidly pianistic, not in any meretricious sense, but in its revelation as ‘piano music’ – both words of that phrase equally apparent. It and the two movements that followed were undeniably Romantic, yet with a backbone that, with Brahms in mind, one might almost call Classical. Richness of tone was married successfully to delicacy of voicing. The grave, recitative-like beauty of the sixth movement, blossomed into arioso, even Lied, and of course into the piano fantasy of the seventh. There was a fine sense of destination to the finale, not so much in a sonata-like sense, as akin to the end of a song-cycle Schumann had yet to pen or indeed a set of Brahms fantasias. Mood swings were throughout observed, but were certainly not the only thing; there was real musical substance here too.

The first movement of Schubert’s sonata again suffered, like the last movement of the Mozart, from a degree of skating over; again, it seemed related to, though not entirely to be ascribed to, swiftness of tempo. Molto moderato was certainly not what I heard. This seemed a more typical first movement; whatever one might hear here, it should not really be ‘typical’ of anything. In this context, the first-time bar before the exposition repeat sounded more bizarre than unsettling. Both in this movement and the second, there was a sense of being rushed, albeit without rigidity; indeed, both proved somewhat diffuse and consequently felt lengthier than they probably were. Even that most extraordinary of modulations – yes, that one, which should utterly take one’s breath away – sounded relatively matter-of-fact. The scherzo was flighty, yet did not soar, even with a damaged wing. However, there was an intriguing sense of rhythmic kinship with other, more conventional Schubert scherzi (not least in his symphonic writing). The finale was, for the most part, beautifully played, give or take the odd instance of the music running away with itself, but I gleaned little sense of what was at stake, a criticism that might have been levelled at this Schubert performance as a whole.

Mark Berry