This is a very familiar piece (to piano aficionados, anyway) — but you’ll find Don’s performance a little refreshingly unfamiliar. It’s not a wild departure from custom, but there’s just a subtle tip in the balance in his performance that makes the feeling of the piece quite different.
In the last entry I mentioned the question of foreground and background. When most pianists play this piece, they put the right hand squarely in the foreground: what you hear is a series of speedy cascades down, a fun bit of finger gymnastics. But when Don plays it, he balances foreground between the left and the right, and what emerges is the slower underlying chord progression. Instead of a nervously flitting thing, it becomes a smoothly unfolding one. That reading brings us to what is to me the essential nature of Schubert: a tiny thing with a vast interior, a world opening from a single moment.
Impromptu D899 No 4 (a.k.a. Op 90 No 4, in A flat minor)
There is one more recording from Don’s living room I’ll post. After that, he recently made two more in the concert hall that are quite special that I’d like to share with you.
I’m a fellow of diverse musical tastes, and there are a great many composers I love who don’t appear in the meager list over on the right of this page. So it’s a delight to post this recording, because I get to add a “Schubert” category. Yay for Schubert!
This is another one of the recordings I made in the living room of my teacher, Don Betts. He’s playing a little gem of Schubert’s that one doesn’t hear often — in fact, I’d never heard it at all until he played it for me. When I looked up some recordings by others, I was surprised to find that most people play it very fast, even presto, making it a silly sort of sing-songy horse gallop. Now admittedly I’m a slow tempo kind of guy, and heck, maybe Schubert intended it to be a silly horse gallop, but man do I ever prefer Don’s tempo.
Schubert’s music is a rarified world, full of repeating simple patterns built from the same few simple ingredients, where subtle changes create tremendous moments — just a shift from minor to major, and a whole new world opens up. In Don’s performance, you can feel the weight of each of those little moments, the overwhelmingly vast interior of this tiny little world, like one of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings.
Piano Piece D946 No 1 (in E flat minor)
Speaking of repeating patterns, there’s a stretch at about 1:40 that sounds almost like a bit of 20th century minimalism. I wonder if Philip Glass likes Schubert? (Hmm. Apparently so. You know, you could probably get a decent Glass parody by taking some random Schubert, and repeating each measure 2-4 times.)
I tried a slightly different approach with the sound on this one than with the Arabesque. It still doesn’t sound quite right — honestly, I wish Don would come to my studio to make some recordings, but he wanted to do this at his house, and when he decides that things should be a certain way, his mind is not easy to change! I guess I sympathize: it’s a bit of a hike over here for him. Anyway, if anybody feels like comparing, let me know what you think of the different sound.