Schubert: 3 sonatas (1816)

Peter Sheppard Skærved violin, Julian Perkins square piano
(Divine Art) athene ath 23208

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This is part of an ongoing series by the violinist and historian Peter Sheppard Skærved devoted to historic violins. For this traversal of the three sonatas composed by Schubert in 1816, he is playing an instrument made in 1782 by the most renowned member of a German family of makers, Martin Leopold Widhalm. As heard here the instrument has a bright, at times rather thin upper range, but satisfyingly full and rounded middle and lower gamut. Sheppard Skærved plays the sonatas using an early Tourte bow (c.1770-1780). Julian Perkins, his pianist on this occasion, plays on a square piano built by Clementi and Co in 1812. While it stresses the domestic purposes for which the music was composed, there are times in more demanding passages where I felt the need for an instrument with greater body. However, as Perkin’s modestly points out in his notes, this is just one of many ways of playing these works.

Both players are understandably protective about the music which as their comprehensive notes makes clear they have thought about in considerable detail and value greatly. All three are indeed pleasing if to my mind hardly memorable works in which, as in the sonatas of Mozart, the piano is often the leader when it comes to presenting thematic material. The D-major is the slightest of the three, having only three movements as opposed to the four of the two minor-key sonatas. But its Andante has a charming little march-like theme, the kind of thing one might expect to accompany a child playing at soldiers. Both the A-minor and G-minor sonatas explore both the melancholy and restlessness one might expect, though to my mind not too profoundly and I have to admit to finding the Mozartian echoes that Sheppard Skærved identifies in the latter to be rather distant ones.

It is so manifestly obvious that much thought, care and affection has gone into this project that it makes it exceedingly hard to confess that I find the results to be in major respects unsatisfying. The principle problem is that Sheppard Skærved’s tone, at least as recorded here, is less than agreeable, especially in the upper range where it too often sounds acidic. Neither is his intonation always reliable and one victim is his frequent perfectly legitimate use of portamento (or portes de voix). In respects such as bowing and phrasing, the violin playing is certainly musical, and in unassertive passages where the music sits in a comfortable mid-range – the beguilingly ambiguous opening of the A-minor’s finale for example – the results can be pleasing. Julian Perkin’s contribution is stylish and technically excellent, although as suggested above I’d have preferred a rather less modest instrument; it would have given a more dramatic sound to, for example, some of the stormier passages in the opening Allegro moderato of D.385.

In sum, this is a CD that deserves the attention of anyone interested in historical instruments and an intelligent approach to playing them, but despite the integrity of the performances I’m afraid it is simply not possible to overlook technical flaws.

Brian Robins

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