When Artur Schnabel wrote of the Schubert piano sonatas as "a safe supply of happiness," he could not have imagined how abundant that supply would grow to be on records. Following [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Wuhrer's pioneering complete cycle for Vox in the early 1950s, Walter Klem has repeated the feat for the same company. Wilhelm Kempff has recorded all the sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon, Paul [WORD ILLEGIBLE] -Skoda has done them all for Harmona [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and distinguished versions of several of the individual sonatas have come from Alfred Erendel (who by now has a good start of a complete cycle), Rudolf Serkin, Christom Esnienbach, Charles Rosen, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu. The two last-named, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] trained in Moscow where this material has never been out of fashion, have been giving us some of the most poetic realizations of these works, and London/Decca generously continues to record them both in this repertoire.
The Schnabel remark quoted above was first encountered in the annotation for the American release of his recording of the Sonata in D major, Op. 53/D. 850, one of the most endearing, if not the greatest, of Schubert's mature sonatas. None of the pianists who recorded it since Schnabel managed to bring out so much of the work's charm and its substance, its wistfulness and its integrity; none managed to let the magical phrases sing so without distorting rhythmic balance (or, said another way, to preserve the rhythmic balance without suppressing the songfulness). Ashkenazy, however, has surpassed Schnabel himself in his new recording of the work (London CS-6961).
The air of inspired improvisation in Ashkenazy's playing is matched only by that in Schubert's writing. There is neither underdevelopment nor overindulgence in the playful or the poignant segments of the work, but the most superb balance between all elements, each episode seen in relation to those that precede and follow it with what used to be called "the rightness of invevitability." Four of the German Dances from the D. 366 set complete this record, which has the additional virtue of demonstrating how well the piano can be recorded.
Ashkenazy's recording of Schubert's big Sonata in G major, Op. 78/D. 894, appeared only a year or two back (London CS-6820), and now there is a new one on the same label by Lupu (CS-6966). Both observe the exposition repeat in the first movement, a gesture generally deemed gratuitous in views of the sprawling dimensions of the piece of begin with. Personally, I seldom object to repeats in Schubert material of this caliber, the sort of music one would like to go on for ever, but Ashkenazy also took an especially leisurely approach which perhaps came a bit too near to realizing that wish. Lupu's more flowing tempo sustains the tension more successfully, not only in the first movement but also in the succeeding Andante , and on his disc there is room for most ingratiating performances of the hardly overexposed two Scherzi, D. 593.
Brendel's powerful presentation of the G-major Sonata, without the first-movement repeat, leaves still more space, which is filled with the more substantial "Unfinished" Sonata in C major, D. 840 (Philipa 6500.416). One can hardly go wrong with either Brendel or Lupu - more subtlety from the former, perhaps, more warmth from the latter, but no real shortage of either quality in either version; the choice of couplings or a strong feeling one way or another about that first-movement repeat might be as good basic as any for choosing between them.