Solzhenitsyn’s Schubert Still Compelling Two Decades Later

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Schubert: Ignat Solzhenitsyn (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 12.1.2018. (BJ)

Shostakovich – Preludes and Fugues, Op.87, Nos. 1, 8, 19 & 24
Schubert – Sonata in B-flat major, D.960

It is almost exactly 20 years since I first encountered the genius of Ignat Solzhenitsyn, playing Schubert’s last and perhaps greatest piano sonata in an alumni recital at the Curtis Institute, from which he had graduated in 1995.

There were revelations that surpassed almost any I had experienced in that masterpiece before, notably the way Solzhenitsyn made total dramatic sense of the positively frightening first-time measures at the end of the first-movement exposition, and the subsequent lightening of mood when, in the repeat, one fears that the explosion may come again—and it doesn’t. (Alfred Brendel once told me that he couldn’t observe the repeat in this movement, because he found the first-time measures stylistically incompatible with the rest of the movement—but surely we can trust Schubert to have been aware of the sore-thumb aspect of the passage, and to have written it with the full intention of shocking the listener.)

Through the intervening decades, Solzhenitsyn has developed an ever-increasing and intensifying depth and breadth of mastery, as both pianist and conductor. For me as a critic it has been a particularly refreshing pleasure to find a performer who, on the relatively rare occasions when I have questioned him about what has seemed to me a dubious textual or interpretative decision, has consistently turned out to be better informed on the subject than I was.

Naturally, then, I approached this opportunity to revisit his interpretation of the Schubert sonata with the keenest pleasurable anticipation. In many respects, his performance in this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital was indeed deeply satisfying. That textual crux in the first movement demonstrated once again with compelling force that Schubert knew more about form than, in this instance, Brendel. The slow movement was unfolded with an easy flow and yet a mordant depth of insight that rendered any questioning of Solzhenitsyn’s choice of tempo otiose. The scherzo was dashed off with seemingly effortless charm. And the taxing textural and rhythmic challenges in the finale held no terrors for the pianist, even in the Presto coda that used to throw even the great Schnabel for a technical loop; Solzhenitsyn followed it, in response to an enthusiastic ovation, with a well-chosen encore in the shape of Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, D.817, which neatly picked up on the rhythmic snap of those first-time measures heard half an hour earlier.

All these considerable positives notwithstanding, you may detect just a hint of hesitancy lurking behind my expressed enthusiasm. And I may as well come right out and confess that this was not to my mind one of Solzhenitsyn’s finest performances. While the intellectual and structural aspects of the sonata were brilliantly realized, the lyrical, poetic, and mysterious side of the music was less convincingly conveyed. This was partly a matter of sonority: it is always hard for a listener to judge whether it is the pianist or the state of the piano that bears prime responsibility for a perceived shortcoming in the matter of sheer sound, but it seemed to me that Solzhenitsyn’s sonority this time had something about it for which the only descriptive word I can think of is ‘chunky’. In retrospect, moreover, I am inclined to think that the central trio section of the third movement was rather seriously underplayed, for those curiously spasmodic sfp accents in the left hand fell short of making their usual unsettling impact.

Despite my reservations, I still found Solzhenitsyn’s performance gripping and often keenly moving, and the sonata made an ideal program partner for his selected group from Shostakovich’s Op.87 set of Preludes and Fugues. This is music we hear too rarely. Unlike most works bearing such a title, these thoughtful pieces demonstrate the possibility of writing genuinely polyphonic music without ever descending into mere baroque-ism.

Bernard Jacobson

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