Schubert impromptus BIS2614

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Impromptus, D899 (1827, Nos 1-2 published 1827, Nos 3-4, 1857)
Impromptus, D935 (1827, Nos 5-8, published 1839)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano, Paul McNulty 2007, after Conrad Graf, c. 1819)
rec. 2022, Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal, Germany
BIS BIS-2614 SACD [61]

I have selected 4 of Schubert’s 8 impromptus to consider and compare Robert Brautigam here on fortepiano with Paul Lewis on modern piano. Impromptu 3 in G flat has the loveliest ‘soprano’ melody of them all with constant rippling quavers’ accompaniment in the ‘contralto’ register. Brautigam plays the melody with engagement and affection, as if very precious. The fortepiano naturally has a softer tone. Brautigam ensures the melody is tender, bringing expressive nuance to its curves, a surge of emotion in the agitated contralto repeat of the second strain (tr. 3, 1:08), then falling away and a more declamatory third strain (1:40) before the benediction of return to the major key (2:09). Now there’s the gorgeous left-hand bottom A double flat to enjoy (2:25), very present but unforced, the focus now turning to the bass. This parade continues, of feelings, contrasts and pitches, the climax coming with a suddenly striking bottom G flat trill (3:38) before Brautigam’s melting recapitulation of the opening melody. Brautigam’s overall approach is intimate and gentle, understating fzs and ffs, mellow, aided by a flowing, quite pacy Andante. But the tension in the left hand remains clear, the accompaniment granted equality to the melody.

Paul Lewis, recorded in 2011 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902115.16, review), timing at 5:41 to Brautigam’s 6:04, brings an even pacier Andante which still makes for a smooth melody but a more active ripple in the accompaniment. Lewis’ second strain is more aching and third more torrid, but focus always on the melody keeps everything in perspective, the modern piano with a sinewy bass yet less disturbing bottom G flat trill. Lewis’ melodic line, beautifully architectured, makes Brautigam’s seem more improvised, closer to the extemporary nature of an impromptu.

Impromptu 4 in A flat has the extra dimension of a Trio in C sharp minor (tr. 4, 2:09) where a second theme soprano melody is embattled against thick quaver chords to an impassioned close, after which the reprise of the opening melody seems more skipping, assured of a better reception. Earlier Brautigam honours Schubert’s careful construction yet brings spontaneity: glistening flotsam soprano semiquaver runs get the response of 6 dapper staccato chords, the male’s animated contribution to a duet. Prepared by earlier leaps, a fulfilment of the soprano’s opening flurries comes from a baritone at 0:57, a stable closure with optimistic purpose, achieved when the soprano takes the baritone’s tune calmly (1:27).

Lewis’ opening is a cooler semiquavers’ trickle, modern piano impressionistic where fortepiano is tinselly, but Lewis brings a strong sense of improvisation in the semiquavers and feeling in the chordal responses and thus duet. A somewhat frivolous lady meets an earnest yet kindly man. I like this greater dramatization. It gives more focus to the Trio, the lady’s sorrow of plaintive opening and powerful second strain, a life of torment relieved by moments of love. After this Lewis’ return of the opening material is more chastened than Brautigam’s, but you still appreciate the two parties come together through duet.

Impromptu 5 has a duet at its heart, more memorable, extended and powerful than Impromptu 4’s because its two parties are in a more loving relationship. Its introduction theme is an obstreperous start from Brautigam, a man, immediately answered by an elegant lady, more concerned with ornament than stress. Yet the first coming together of the two in legato duet (tr. 5, 0:48) is powerful and engaging. Real magic comes with the second theme sempre legato (1:40, evolved from 0:36), the couple in accord as the lady rises ever higher. The final ingredient is a central section pp appassionato (2:33), a warm and idyllic depth of feeling, the second part gentle insistence of loving simplicity and innocent trust. The introduction reprise finds Brautigam’s man richer and lady firmer. The second theme reprise has both more fervent in unity. The central section reprise is ravishing from both, glistening in pearly light, the fortepiano’s tone revealing the warmth and gentleness of the man’s support, notably the bottom A flat at 9:03. The introduction appears for the third time as coda, ornate yet terse.

Lewis, recorded in 2011-12 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902136.37 review) brings a more dramatic and shattering experience, but Brautigam’s is lovelier to savour. Lewis’ man’s introduction is sullenly dutiful, only gaining gravitas in the coda. Lewis’ lady is more tense, the engagement as a couple potent, rendering the appearance of the second theme balmier. Lewis’ central section has more mystery but the couple’s tender consideration for one another is precious calm after passionate outbursts. Lewis’ roller-coaster ride continues in the reprises, the second theme’s affectionate and grateful, the central section’s affirmative with shining gaze. With Lewis there’s more dynamic contrast and clarity of articulation, with Brautigam more reflective glow and beauty of tone.

Impromptu 7 is the best known, its melody originally Entr’acte 3 of the Rosamunde incidental music (1823). Schubert in endearingly quixotic manner expands it through variations and adds quirky elegance from the outset in the short appoggiatura added to the end of the first phrase and trickier double one at the climax of the second strain. Brautigam presents liltingly with light treatment of the appoggiaturas and clarity to the intrinsic simplicity of foundation. In Variation 1 (tr. 7, 1:40) Brautigam mettlesomely generates momentum through the offbeat left-hand interplay. Variation 2 (3:04) is more outlandish in release, its second strain whirligig proto-Chopin, Brautigam all fun. Variation 3 (4:27) is unexpectedly in B flat minor, yet Brautigam makes this elaborate savouring of high register sighing. Variation 4 (6:07) assuages with happy descant and Brautigam’s energetic rhythmic displacement between the hands. Variation 5 (7:59) starts like shimmering Chopin but with coda an affectionate farewell.

Lewis, timing 11:12 against Brautigam’s 10:12, offers a more expansive Andante. In favour, more detailing of dynamic contrasts and nuances, like punctilious appoggiaturas; against, more recollection in tranquillity than Brautigam’s present immediacy. Ultimately, Brautigam provides more emotion, Lewis more artifice, albeit with lovely tone and clarity. Nevertheless, in the final variation Lewis moves from trickling poise to autumnal adieu.

Michael Greenhalgh

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