On my first traversal of this mostly very successful set, I began at what turned out to be the wrong end. A glance at the timings accompanying the track listing had me wondering how on earth one could play the first movement of the G Major Sonata in 10:57,and I was eager to find out. This – bear in mind – is a movement that takes 26:51 in Richter’s admittedly sui generis interpretation, 18:42 on the Edelweiss disc by Daniel Levy that I praised warmly , 17:16 in Brendel’s 1988 Philips recording and 16:56 in Lupu’s Decca/London version. Of course, one way of reducing the duration is to omit the repeat, which Brendel has done in his more recent live recording, but even there the movement still takes 12:31.
A timing of 10:57, then, seemed pretty extreme. I am bound to say that, when I listened to Anthony Goldstone’s performance, it did not actually sound rushed. There is a naturalness about the veteran Englishman’s playing, an ease in the ebb and flow of his rubato, that convinces even when one does not necessarily agree with some of his decisions regarding tempo and other matters. At the same time, I find a certain shallowness in the piano tone, at least as recorded here, and the music in consequence sounds one-dimensional and lacking in mystery.
So far as this particular sonata is concerned, then it seems to me that if you take a piece of music that is intrinsically hypnotic and try to wake it up a bit, the result is bound to lose character. Happily, however, as I went through the rest of the set, the playing – and even the recorded sound – became more and more persuasive. The little A Major Sonata, D. 664, is charmingly done (and incidentally, aside from that instance in the G Major work, all repeats except in scherzo da capos are observed throughout the set). The Wanderer Fantasy, the C Minor Allegretto, and the ravishing second set of Impromptus all receive deeply sympathetic performances, especially eloquent in the dreamlike crossed-hands passages of the first Impromptu.
The great last sonata, too, is finely played, with a freedom of pulse that ensures vitality without ever going beyond reasonable stylistic bounds. Whether the first movement at Goldstone’s pace – the timing is 18:04 – can really called “Molto Moderato” is open to question, and the silences around measure 94 are perhaps clipped a trifle short, but this is thoughtful and often touchingly beautiful music-making. It does not, for all that, supplant Stephen Hough’s wonderful Hyperion performance as my own favourite among current versions of the Sonata. Goldstone’s slow movement flows finely, but Hough captures the music’s processional quality more comprehensively; Hough, too, takes more seriously the delicatezza of the scherzo, at the start of which Goldstone is hardly pp (though Goldstone’s accents in the trio are particularly effective), and in the finale the sense of hesitancy that Hough evokes until the music finally settles down into its main tonality is a profoundly perceptive touch.
In sum, a few shortcomings aside, the Goldstone set is an achievement that it would be niggardly to describe as merely worthy. This is a compelling presentation of Schubert’s almost impossibly lovely piano music, and I look forward to further instalments with lively interest.