Music & Vision - August 2004 - Written by John Bell Young

SCHUBERT: The Three Posthumous Piano Sonatas; Wanderer Fantasy
Jerome Rose, piano
Medici Classics

There are those who think of Schubert as an early romantic composer who churned out one lovely and memorable tune after another. But the facts suggest something else entirely. Indeed, what drives virtually every one of his works, whatever their particular métier, is the complexity of their harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. But beyond the formal organization of the notes there is something disturbing that lies beneath, giving voice to the extraordinary angst of a tormented soul and an enlightened thinker.

In his newly released survey of the magisterial posthumous sonatas, Jerome Rose, an immensely authoritative pianist, leaves no stone unturned in his search for musical substance. Indeed, Mr. Rose is no lightweight, contradicting an approach towards Schubert’s piano music that was once considered as acceptable as it was stylish.

Mr. Rose dismisses any idea of Schubert as an idle dreamer or vapid tunesmith, revealing him instead as a composer whose aesthetics embrace conflict as the prevailing raison’ d’etre, yielding as much to darkness as much as to light. Mr. Rose is a musician who not only recognizes but also delivers Schubert’s wanderlust with just the seriousness of purpose it demands. Never failing to dig deep, he refuses to marginalize even so much as the full value of a structurally significant upbeat (witness the opening bars of the A major sonata, where he illuminates and fortifies the eighth note upbeats en route to the following measures).

His readings are fascinating for several significant reasons. Indeed, his penchant for exploring the darker side of Schubert’s troubled spirit is a welcome interpretive antidote to the customary and usual superficial readings that make a meal of every melody. Unlike Schnabel, for example, whose equally substantive interpretations strive to communicate joy, Mr. Rose is interested in Schubert’s essential pessimism, and in the immanent critique –the argument, if you will -- his compositions make on their own behalf. The compositionally codified Alpine schwung that Schnabel (and later, Walter Klien) depended upon to elicit Schubert’s peculiar charms is not, for Mr. Rose, the central focus in music that is as endearing as it is psychologically terrifying. From this perspective, Mr. Rose, whose ability to bring compositional issues into such intense focus is utterly remarkable, bears much in common with Rudolf Serkin, and to a certain extent, Alfred Brendel.

Witness, for example, his magisterial command of the closing Allegro of the C minor sonata, one of Schubert’s last. A rondo in the form of a tarantella, it is an enormous work that would break down utterly in the absence of a taut and strictly perpetuated rhythm. Its cross currents rely on close intervals to suavely articulate its ghostly ride across bar lines, breaking occasionally into larger intervallic structures (the always sunny major sixth), as if to come up for air, or perhaps a final breath. In sustaining rhythmic tension without compromise or wayward rubatos, Mr. Rose takes advantage of those larger intervals to effectively punctuate the music’s rhythmic profile. This kind of strategic planning, though indispensable, is also the very thing that allows a savvy artist to both exploit tension and deliver Schubert’s message powerfully and in tact, as it were.

In both the Wanderer Fantasy and the great B flat Sonata – surely among the finest readings on record in Mr. Rose’s stunning performances – it is precisely such tension, so admirably realized here, that grips the listener and won’t let go. In a work so often played by competent pianists it is a rare occasion to detect some new thread or idea heretofore unexplored. Yet Mr. Rose does just that. No doubt his understanding Schubert is in part inspired by his intimate knowledge of Schubert’s vocal literature. Witness his account of the first movement of the B flat Sonata. In less experienced hands it more often than not becomes little more than a dreamy caricature of itself, demeaned to a petty pianistic songfest and unctuously comfortable entertainment whose sprawling melodies are delivered with polite reverence.

Not so for Mr. Rose, who will have nothing of that sort. On the contrary, for him, its perspectives are bleak, its outlook dark, and its melancholy immense. And yet it redeems its nobility precisely by virtue of its struggle to transcend any superficial beauty. Thus does Mr. Rose refuse to make of it a slack, linear experience, preferring instead to harvest the counterpoint for its agonizing dissonances, so deftly interiorized, for the cumulative rhythmic power that lends it compositional inevitability.

Save for Brendel and Schnabel, more satisfying and intellectually cogent performances than these would be hard to come by. What more can one ask for?


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