Schubert’s otherworldly genius takes on a particularly striking aspect in his chamber music, including the songs, and his works for piano. In these essays, not needing to recruit large forces or rely on a ragtag orchestra of family and friends, Schubert could write freely and express exactly what was on his mind…which, once we have heard it, seems equal parts strange, wonderful, dark, light, and surprising.
Again and again in his keyboard music Schubert ventures into expressive realms no one had visited before, following harmonic pathways no one had dreamt of until he discovered them. All that’s needed to get a sense of his daring is to listen to the expansive opening movement of his final piano sonata, in B flat, D. 960—a 20-minute-long meditation characterized by an almost prodigal flow of ideas, frequent minor-key colorations, and a propensity for bizarre modulations like the astonishing turn to G flat major that occurs in measures 18–20. Schubert’s piano music is full of such “through the looking glass” moments, which can produce a sensation akin to strolling down Fifth Avenue, entering a building through a revolving door, and coming out in Connecticut.
It helps to have an experienced guide in this music, and there’s never been a more capable one than Wilhelm Kempff. This splendid reissue—one of a series of CD/Blu-ray Audio combo packages that DG has released of late—dusts off what has long been one of the gilt-edged securities of the classical catalog. It brings together not just the 18 sonatas Kempff recorded for DG between 1965 and 1970, but the other Schubert he recorded at the same time: both sets of Impromptus (D. 899 and 935), the Moments musicaux (D. 780), the Wanderer Fantasy (D. 760), and a handful of shorter pieces, with the Liszt arrangement of Schubert’s “Horch, horch, die Lerch’ im Ätherblau” (D. 889), recorded in Berlin for Polydor in 1935, thrown in as a bonus on CD only.
Kempff’s touch is lapidary, and his readings abound in imaginative elegances. Just one example: the way he phrases the dotted figure in the opening subject of the first movement of the little A major sonata, D. 664—stretching it here, “springing” it there so as to make the melody seem made up on the spot rather than matter-of-fact. Repeatedly, the essential intimacy of the pianist’s manner reveals more of the drama and “otherness” of this music than an overtly dramatic approach ever could.
The sound on the CDs is sensational—meaty, warm, formidably deep in the bass. To my ears it is the same as on the 7-CD set of the sonatas from 1988, long one of my desert island treasures. Compared to this, the new (2018) Blu-ray Audio remastering seems almost a different recording: more polite and soft-spoken, it conveys—faithfully, I think—the actual weight of Kempff’s sound and the bell-like tone in the upper octave for which he was celebrated. The instrument is heard at a slightly greater distance, yet despite that it is palpably present, in a space that suggests a Biedermeier-era salon.
The set is available for about $40, not a bad price for ten hours of magic, though something this good and this easy on the wallet ought to be illegal.