Schubert: Sonata, Rondo and Fantasie (CD review)

Viktoria Mullova (violin), Alasdair Beatson (fortepiano). Signum SIGCD706.

By Bill Heck

When I happened upon this recording, my ears immediately perked up: I had happily and favorably reviewed a disc of Beethoven sonatas performed by these same musicians (see, and so was eager to hear what they were up to with Schubert. Would they live up to that same high standard? Read on…

The works on this album are the Violin Sonata In A Major, D. 574 (Op. 162), apparently composed in 1817; the Fantasie In C Major, D. 934 (Op.159) from December of 1827; and the Rondo In B Minor, D. 895 (Op. 70) from late 1826. As many readers will know, Schubert composed at a furious rate, leaving many hundreds of works at his death in 1828 at just 31 years of age. Appreciation for his work was limited to small numbers of musically knowledgeable Viennese at the time of his death, but his works were quickly rediscovered and promoted by leading composers including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and more. I need hardly add that Schubert now is regarded as one of the supreme composers of the late classical to early romantic period – or of any other period.

Keeping track of all of his works, many (most?) of which were unpublished in his lifetime, is a gargantuan task. And difficult as that might be, just imagine keeping track of all the recordings of those many works. Which brings up the question: what night make the current album stand out?

Well, there’s the obvious point regarding the musicianship of the two performers. Moreover, unlike many earlier recordings of these works, these are “historically informed performances” (HIPs, and yes, that’s the real acronym), and indeed are played on period instruments. A period violin is nothing unusual, but Mullova’s instrument is strung with gut, which makes for a different sound than modern strings. Beatson plays a copy of a fortepiano from 1809, which most certainly has a different sound than a modern piano.
Now let's start with positives. The first word that comes to my mind in regard to the performances is “passionate", especially Mullova's playing, with the word "sprightly" not far behind. The performances, especially that of the early Sonata, make the music interesting and engaging, as it well should be. There is considerable dynamic range, something that does not always happen with some HIPs. However, I don't feel that this duo lives up to the standard set in the album that I mentioned above.

First, in regard to the playing, there are a few mannerisms that I find bothersome. For example, in some transitions between phrases where the fortepiano is alone, Beatson seems to rush the notes and, on occasion, not sound the last note or two quite clearly; listen, for instance, at about 1:00 and 2:15 in the first movement. A minor issue, but it does tend to interrupt the flow.

But my larger concerns have to do, in a broad sense, with the recorded sound. Unlike the Beethoven recording on the Onyx label, this one, on Signum, is in a much more reverberant environment. That acoustic “scene,” and perhaps the recording technique, emphasize what I hear as the clanginess and, if I can use the term, the “slowness” of the forte piano, to the point at which I am reminded of the sound of a piano in saloon scenes in old westerns. Moreover, the two instruments are placed oddly: the fortepiano seems to be far back in a more reverberant space than the violin, a discontinuity that I find disconcerting. Also, and particularly in the Sonata, when Mullova is playing more loudly, it sounds as though she is leaning into the microphone, which creates an unnatural increase in volume.

Compare all this to another fine recording of the Sonata by Manze and Egarr on Harmonia Mundi. This one also is an HIP and was recorded in a very reverberant space as well. While again the fortepiano has that same clangy quality, and even sounds a little congested in the lower registers, the spirit and dynamics make it through more clearly.

Similarly, in the Fantasie, it sounds as though the music is trying to escape the confines of the fortepiano. Is the recording the issue? Is Beatson's playing too stolid? Is the fortepiano insufficiently responsive? I don't know, but for me the music simply is not taking off. In contrast, in the excellent recording by Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin on Centaur--admittedly not on period instruments--the music sings; it clearly belongs to the romantic period.

No doubt there are others who will hear the fine playing on this album--and despite my reservations, there’s plenty of it--and think that I’m completely off base. But if you can give up the HIP angle, give a listen to the same works on the Cotik / Lin album and see what you think. Or if you really are looking for an HIP version, check out the Manze and Egarr album of Violin Sonatas, including the A Major.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa