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Positive Feedback ISSUE 22
november/december 2005


Alain Planès' Schubert... Schubert…

...Schubert… Schubert


…on Harmonia Mundi
by Bob Neill


Sonata D. 958, D. 899 Four Impromptus, and D. 790 Twelve German Dances HMX 2981564
Sonatas D.537, D.575, and D.784
, HMC 901789
Sonatas D.664 and D.850
, HMC 901713
Sonatas D.568 and D.845
, HMC 901723
Sonata D.894 and Moments Musicaux
D.780 HMC 901697
Wanderer Fantasy D.760 and Sonatas D.625 & D.840
Sonata D.959 and Six Impromptus D.935
, musique d'abord HMA 1951637
Sonata D.960, HMC 901658
(currently unavailable)

One of the finest Schubert Piano Sonata cycles of modern times is in danger of slipping into obscurity, and I am here to do what I can to slow the slide. I love Mitsuko Uchida's cycle, wouldn't be without it. I grab every decent Brendel Schubert LP that comes near me. But as often as not it is to Alain Planès that I turn for the whole composer who is Franz Schubert; and who is so seldom performed. Planès has shown me the power, drama, and sheer eloquence that is in these sonatas to be let out. Where many Schubert performers let this music settle somewhere toward the middle of its emotional range to create some kind of comforting ‘Schubertian' melancholy, Planès lets each aspect of Schubert speak for itself, resulting in a far more complex and rocky ride.

It was Jerry Dubins writing in Fanfare (Jan/Feb 2004), who alerted me to this series, a recommendation I shouldn't have needed based on what I'd heard of the pianist's Haydn (also on Harmonia Mundi). Dubins writes that hearing some of the discs in this cycle for the first time was a “life altering experience,” and I soon came to understand that at least for music lovers like us, this was no exaggeration. What Planès alters is our whole conception of Schubert. ‘Schubertian' has come to mean lyrical, melancholy, elegiac. Planès' Schubert is all of these things but also passionate, angry, deeply pained, joyful, ecstatic. If I were a rich man, I would buy the tapes from Harmonia Mundi in the hope they were recorded at a higher level of resolution than CD's can accommodate, and have them pressed in vinyl. (If I were even richer, I'd hire Planès to perform them all again in front of an analogue tape recorder!) But I am not a rich man. And to be fair, these CD's are among the very best I've heard—the bottom end of the piano especially is solid and clear; so while the quality of the performances cause me to dream of sonic perfection, I really can't complain. Playing through these recordings, 1-2 a day, early this fall has given me one of my most memorable musical experiences.

Harmonia Mundi has begun to reissue the series, not all of which is currently available, at least in the US, on their mid-price musique d'abord label. (The only one not available anywhere at the moment is D.960). This fall, with the infinitely helpful Susan Guralnik of Harmonia Mundi, I was able to fill out my Planès Schubert collection with all but the D.960 disc. I hereby offer a reward of $25 to anyone who can track one down for me.

What follows is as brief a go at them all as seems reasonable. I have transcribed my notes almost verbatim. The length of a note implies nothing about my enjoyment of a work. Some very simply left me with very little to say.

D. 959. Toward the end of the first movement, it becomes spoken Schubert. I don't know how else to put it. The controlling rhythm becomes the rhythm of spoken language. Never having seen the sheet music for the work, I have no idea how much of this quality is on the page, how much in Planès' understanding of how it should go. The performance is absolutely mesmerizing.

D. 958. These four Impromptus represent a marvelous microcosm of Schubert's range. No. 3 could be rendered as pure Sentimental Schubert in less understanding hands. In Planès', it is lyrical and passionate by turns, tempos again as flexible as speech.

D. 899. Four Impromptus. I missed these until toward the end of my several week expedition, and they were the first music in the series that did not do much for me. I recognized the third and fourth – they get played a lot—but even they felt more romantically indulgent than Planès Schubert has generally proved to me. Grand confections? Or have I just heard them too often?

C. 790. Twelve German Dances. What is most interesting about this performance of these well-known pieces is that if you're not watching the visual display on your CD player, you would likely not realize this is twelve dances. Each flows without break into the next, so that what we really hear is a ten-minute dance. And the key changes nine times! This is very sophisticated and highly entertaining waltzing…and minueting.

D. 845. In this performance, Planès showed me how alert a lyrical state of mind can be. Alert to the complexities and mood changes that can exist within a meditative mood. This sonata, the first movement in particular, played as Planès plays it, challenges the idea of Schubert's being a simpler and less turbulent soul than Beethoven. And then, as the second movement comes on, we are in what might as well be a Bach chorale …which turns into variations on its opening theme, whirling inward to more turbulent waters. By the time this extraordinary work is finished, I no longer believe that Schubert's leider, as rich as it is, is his major contribution to the Western musical tradition.

D. 568. This earlier sonata (though he reworked it toward the end of his life, tactfully, leaving no audible evidence of trying to add sophistication or second thoughts), is more songlike, occasionally even rapturously so. But even in these quieter, less complex waters, Planès find the way to eloquence, often by slowing tempos so we can savor phrases for their own sake.

D. 537. This sonata has a deliberate, winsome quality, which is disarming in Planès' hands. It wants a light, almost whimsical, touch most of the way and that is what he gives it, particularly in the walking second movement. The third movement swings among playfulness, songfulness, and earnestness. The ultimate effect is puckish. Planès seems to understand exactly the spirit it wants and remains within it. Wonderful.

D. 575. Very similar in spirit to D. 537 in its first movement. But the second is more thoughtful, the third more lyrical and good-hearted—almost cheerful. This mood carries into the final movement. There is a straightforwardness and sense of musical sincerity in D. 575, which demonstrates where the prevailing ‘idea' of Schubert comes from. This is genial music, very charming in its way, giving little hint that the composer has headier stuff up his sleeve.

D. 784. One of the advantages of listening to these sonatas out of order is the periodic shock of discovering how different is the state of mind reflected in this comparatively late work from the earlier ones above. Darker, bolder, grander. And the composer is only 26. But he will die at 31.

D. 850. What comes out in this sonata with Planès' is how with Schubert a thematic idea that begins as a bold clear statement for development, can wander off in pensive directions it would not occur to Beethoven to pursue. It is where the difference in their musical minds comes out most clearly. When we begin to hear this in Schubert, we begin (I begin) to understand his real stature. We feel more exploratory with Schubert, more curious, more willing to leave the path. We hear a fascinatingly truant musical mind. In this sonata, we also sense the composer of lieder. It is to short stretches of lieder-like music that some of Schubert's truancies lead! Planès makes us feel in these passages—and especially on the way into and out of them—how much fun it is to play Schubert right.

D. 664. By the time I got to D. 664, I realized that until these weeks with Alain Planès I had never found Schubert's music truly beautiful. There is great beauty in this sonata. It is not relentless in its beauty, the composer is too wise for that. It comes and goes; but when it comes, it is without fail.

D. 894. Planès's sense of pace gives this sonata the feel of a great emotional current working its way through painful difficulties. There is a rise and fall of energy levels, all under the control of a will to maintain some semblance of forward movement. Planès is almost literally inside this piece, pushing it out into life, breathing with it. In this performance he shows how much tact he has: this sonata could easily be a virtuoso show piece, but the pianist won't let it be that. The great changes of mood are never pressed upon us; they feel utterly natural. The work is racked with pain but remains utterly spellbinding in its lyricism. This performance of D. 894 is the most powerful in the series so far. It makes me want to hear the missing D. 960 recording more than ever!

D. 780 Six Moments Musicaux. A mini-recital of diverting pieces, with which Planès completes the disc, enabling us to re-enter the world he took us away from with his C. 894! Enjoyable and probably all we could abide at this point.

D. 625. This work as Planès plays it becomes a rambling narrative—it is almost all forward movement, with few dramatic alterations of pacing or relative loudness. What dynamic changes do come along seem muted. The fourth and final movement is a bit more restive. We are told that, like D. 840 on the same disc, that D. 625 comes to us with a good deal of its material barely sketched out. This may or may not account for the recurring sense that we are in the presence of musing rather than statement.

D. 840. Whatever the cause, D. 840 also has a meandering, musing feel to it. Planès is clearly taken by its tentative, exploratory mood, happy to let it be what it is rather than to turn it into something more forceful and definitive. There are two long movements rather than the traditional four, which helps to reinforce the freeness we sense in the work.

D. 760. Wanderer Fantasy And here we are back to bold, mature, ‘finished' Schubert. Despite the title (taken from the second movement, which is based on a Schubert song, Der Wanderer), there is no hint of meandering or exploring here. A strong, clear, melodic line, dynamics that swell to near tempest proportions and then subside into lovely lyric passages which grow out of them thematically. A fine work to end this adventure on.


This is one of the greatest traversals of a musical oeuvre I know of. It has transformed my sense of Schubert and elevated his music for piano to among my favorites. I urge you to enter the stream wherever you like. All I can promise is that if you do, you won't soon leave it.

System used for audition: Audio Note: CDT 2 II transport, Dac 4.1 Balanced, M6 preamplifier, Neiro 2A3 monoblock amplifier, AN-E/SPe loudspeakers with Sogon, AN-Vx, and Spx cabling.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, and JM Reynaud, among others.