Tuesday 7 November 2017

A 30 year journey: pianist Paul Berkowitz on his complete Schubert sonatas recordings

Paul Berkowitz (Photo Tony Mastres)
Paul Berkowitz (Photo Tony Mastres)
Canadian pianist Paul Berkowitz is celebrating the completion of his recording of all the Schubert piano sonatas with a concert, performing Schubert's final three sonatas at St John's Smith Square on Thursday 9 November 2017. The recording project, which is on Meridian Records, has spanned a remarkable 30 years of Paul Berkowitz's life. Paul explains that the recording project did not start out as a complete cycle, that in the way of these things it rather grew.

Paul has always felt close to Schubert's piano music, though when the first recording from the cycle came out 30 years ago the sonatas were not well known and not many pianists were playing them. Paul never heard the sonatas as a child, but aged 14 he discovered them on someone's piano and was 'blown away'. He fell in love, but his teacher would not allow him to learn them, they were too complicated, and he was only allowed to learn the A major (D. 664).

Later, whilst studying with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute, Paul badgered Serkin into letting him study the B flat sonata, and he also took a number of master-classes. For his London debut Paul played the B flat sonata and later, when he came to live in London (where he was resident for 20 years) he took the opportunity to give three recitals at the Wigmore Hall, each a week apart. He was still pretty young, around 35, but was always attracted to late works and played the late sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His performances created a bit of a stir, and the founder of Meridian Records, John Shuttleworth, came back stage after one of his Wigmore Hall recitals and asked him what he wanted to record, something unlikely to happen nowadays,

So Paul recorded the last three sonatas of Schubert. It was 1982; Brendel had recorded them in the 1970s but few other pianists were playing them. The plan had been to record just the B flat sonata and some fillers, but things went so well that Paul recorded the other two sonatas (the final session finished at 1.30am, something he admits would be less likely nowadays).

It was his first recording for disc (previously he had recorded for radio) and he found he disliked the recording process with all its patching. But he was been lucky that Meridian have always allowed him to record in long takes, laying down a complete movement, doing patches and then doing a final version of the complete movement again. For those first recordings it was Paul who did the editing, selecting takes from 120 minute cassettes, again something which does not happen nowadays,

Paul feels that there is a degree of refinement you can achieve in the recording process which allows you to aim for the ideal version of a piece in your head. Generally though, he knows that time is pressing during the recording process, and his indulgence is doing the final complete play through of a movement after all the patching.

Having recorded the final three sonatas he wanted to learn more. As he did so, he performed them and then recorded them. Once around half of the sonatas were recorded, it felt natural to continue. Though he loves all of the sonatas, he admits that few of the early sonatas are as earth shattering as the late ones. He has not recorded the completions of unfinished sonatas, feeling that no modern completion can touch Schubert's genius, though he has recorded the two complete movements of the Reliquie sonata and the Wanderer Fantasy.

Paul mentions John M. Gingerich's book Schubert's Beethoven Project, and talks about the way Schubert's early sonatas are like Mozart in their use of long subject. But having heard Beethoven's piano sonatas in 1826, with their use of short motifs, Schubert's later sonatas do something similar; starting with a pithy motif which expands into a subject. And the B flat sonatas is the most complex Schubert wrote. Paul also comments on how some of the most poignant moments in all three late sonatas tend to be in C sharp minor, no matter the key of the sonata itself.

Though Paul accepts that his approach to Schubert has probably changed over the years, he does not like listening to his recordings; but he suspects that he is better nowadays at keeping the tempo steady He also thinks he hears more of the inner parts than he used to, he no feels that you should be able to hear all the parts and makes more of the contrapuntal aspects of the music.

For his St John's Smith Square recital on Thursday 9 November, Paul is playing the last three sonatas, all written in the last two months of Schubert's life. Paul feels they make a good cycle, and the three have contrasting moods, C minor - dramatic, A major - hopeful, B flat major - acceptance. Paul comments that you could imagine them as different approaches to death, and that many of the texts of Schubert's lieder of the period are about the same subject.

Paul started playing the piano at the age of six. He also played the violin, he was terrible but thinks it is useful to know about string playing. Whilst it was his family that introduced him to the piano, his father was worried about piano as a career and Paul was supposed to go to university to do a science degree. For his first year he did music and science simultaneously, but then moved fully into music.

Currently Paul does not feel particularly pressed by the idea of what next, now he has laid all the Schubert sonatas down, though he would like to learn something new. He did the Beethoven Diabelli Variations last year for the first time and they were almost completely new to him. Other ideas include Schumann's Humoreske, and he feels he should do more Bach and has not played much in public. Similarly he used to do a lot of Chopin but has not done much recently, and another departure might be Debussy.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • The Ear of the Huguenots: Paul van Nevel & the Huelgas Ensemble - CD review
  • Eclectic journey: Guy Johnston's Tecchler's Cello - CD review
  • Musically satisfying: Mozart's Don Giovanni from HeadFirst Productions - opera review
  • Viscerally engaging: Conductor Finnegan Downie Dear introduces Shadwell Opera's production of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse - interview
  • Viola da gamba delight: Robert Smith in Telemann's newly discovered fantasias - Cd review
  • Beyond Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos of Roger Sacheverell Coke - CD review
  • Picture Perfect: Rameau's Pygmalion at BREMF - opera review
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