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Phillip Kawin Review Franz Schubert

Fanfare Magazine

Phillip Kawin: Franz Schubert

We’re accustomed as reviewers to mention when a set of program notes is insightful or well written. Both are true for the notes to this Schubert album from Phillip Kawin, an admired faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, a Schubert specialist as a performer, and an in-demand lecturer. The notes are in the form of an interview with him, and I found myself brought up short by the points he made. Kawin gives us nothing less than a complete view of what sets Schubert’s piano music apart. To tick off just a few comments:

“Schubert’s musical language is unique in a number of ways. The phrase structure is quite asymmetrical and often does not follow a more traditional regular four or eight-bar pattern as is so often found in Mozart or Chopin.”

“One of the most challenging aspects is to manage all the contrasts and nuances while keeping the natural frame of the music without exaggeration.”

“... finding the right proportions is one of the most essential elements of structure.”

I’ve picked these remarks more or less at random, but in the course of the interview Kawin leaves out nothing. For example, here’s the range of feeling he finds in Schubert’s piano writing: loneliness, intimacy, mystery, defiance, resolute character, storm and unrest, agitation, intensity, all contrasted on the other side with peace, tranquility, and the quality of the sublime. Previous generations, which found Schubert’s keyboard writing too simple or even untutored, would have been astonished. I was brought up short because Kawin made me realize that my responsibility as a listener is to deepen my appreciation of all these things. I was already in agreement with him that the key factor is song—behind his abstract music, the nearly endless moods expressed in Schubert’s Lieder remain foremost in his mind.

Happily, given how idealistic Kawin’s views are, he is able to translate them into performances where the music behind the notes is conveyed quite beautifully. Schubert wrote three sonatas in A Minor, and D 845 is as good a place to start as any to mark the beginning of true mastery of the piano. At 37 minutes it surpasses any Beethoven sonata except the “Hammerklavier” in length, and although the tone is lyrical rather than heroic (despite a drumming motif that appears in several movements), the work deserves to be considered a Grand Sonata. Kawin’s reading is natural and flowing, yet he has sufficient touch to bring out a level of nuance we associate with masters of subtlety such as Radu Lupu and András Schiff.

Schubert produced a miracle in the simply titled Three Piano Pieces (Drei Klavierstücke), D 946, which were composed in his last year, 1828. They should have reflected something dire or tragic, but instead are filled with light and joy. Early references treated them as three linked movements of a quasi-sonata, which is somewhat viable, but Kawin notes that these pieces are too full of individuality to count as a sonata. They were first published in an edition by Brahms in 1868 (for which he modestly took no credit). Schubert’s shorter keyboard works, especially the Moments musicaux and the two sets of Impromptus, easily took hold and became popular, but for some reason the Drei Klavierstücke didn’t, and they are still fairly rare in recital. Paul Lewis recorded them magnificently in 2011 (Harmonia Mundi), and now Kawin’s account joins a select rank.

Kawin carries out every point made in the interview about proportion, subtlety, hidden loneliness, and managing Schubert’s tricky modulations and transitions. (I found it an education to read the booklet before listening to the performances, in fact.) In the creative urgency of his final year, Schubert didn’t get the chance to revise and polish these pieces, as he did the late sonatas, so we’ll never know where his imagination might have taken him. But, on their own, they are perfect examples of late Schubert style. If I had to choose one quality besides superior musicianship that sets Kawin’s interpretations apart, it would be warmth. He makes the point that he’s opposed to a prevalent style of Schubert pianism that’s “dry and limited.” I don’t want to put words in his mouth, since he doesn’t name the performers he has in mind. Perhaps the reference is simply to academicism in general and the tendency in some quarters to push Schubert back into the box of Classical style, closer to Haydn than to, say, Schumann and Brahms. But I’ll happily supply my own roster of Schubert pianists who can be dry and limited, including Brendel, Lupu, and Schiff. Without veering into the turbulent, Beethoven-like approach of Richter, Kawin has found a way to magnify the scope of Schubert’s piano works, looking to the expert management of all the details we call style. As icing on the cake, the Steinway Model D he plays here is a superb instrument, captured in vivid, realistic sound that does full credit to the award-winning producer and engineer, Steven Epstein.

Huntley Dent

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