Schubert: Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor, D821; String Quintet in C, D956

Nicolas Deletaille; Paul Badura-Skoda; Quatuor Rosamonde (Fuga Libera FUG529)

29 May 2008 4 stars

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata etcIt may seem peculiar to begin a review of major works by Schubert with a paragraph on the Russian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952). However, an important illustrative metaphor can be drawn. Here was a man who wrote symphonies, concertos and piano music harking back to the days of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov at a time when the likes of Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were setting new boundaries. Though his works – many of which have been revived by the Hyperion label – were pleasantly received, they never so much as dented the canon, all but disappearing from view after the composer's death.

In much the same way, the arpeggione (or 'bowed guitar') was an instrument that arrived at the party decades too late, only to find that the original guests had given way to a younger, stronger, more innovative crowd (i.e. the cello). The instrument – with a fingerboard consisting of twenty-two metal frets, six gut strings with tuning the same as a classical guitar, and lacking an endpin – was a late descendent of the viola da gamba, an instrument described by Burnley in the late 1760s as 'radically so crude and nasal, that nothing but the greatest skill and refinement can make [it] bearable'. Thus, the only guarantee upon the arpeggione's invention in 1823 was, seemingly, its extinction barely ten years later.

Thankfully, the young Belgian cellist Nicolas Deletaille makes his arpeggione – specially crafted by his compatriot violin-maker Benjamin Labrique in 2001 – sound more than bearable. His performance of the one work whose name keeps memories of this bygone instrument alive – Schubert's eponymous Sonata in A minor, D821 – is revelatory, as it gives today's listeners a fascinating insight into what the aural experience of this work might have been in the mid 1820s. Most striking is the effortlessness with which the arpeggione achieves the full four-octave range that the composer sought to exploit in this composition. The passage beginning at 10:10 in the opening Allegro moderato, covering this expanse in the space of a little over two bars, is testament both to this and to Deletallie's mastery of the instrument, which presents many serious technical challenges.

Beyond the uniqueness of this project, Deletaille and pianist Paul Badura-Skoda (playing a period pianoforte) put forth a reading full of charm and insight. The subtle differences between the first movement's exposition and its repeat are well thought out and beautifully executed. Though the piano accompaniment is occasionally a tad jarring in the central Adagio, the arpeggione inculcates new levels of tranquillity, floating gracefully and wistfully. The finale is the pick of the piece, the duo brilliantly capturing the kaleidoscopic range of emotions without ever threatening extremes. Whilst this rendition will not supplant the expansive, voluptuous tone that the cello so often bestows upon this work, this recording is nevertheless a highly informative and inspirational project that warrants attention.

Given the significance of this performance, one might have wished for a more refined recorded sound. There are balance issues on occasions when the arpeggione ventures into its lower registers, though the performers and the nature of the instruments also bear responsibility. Of greater concern is the fact that one could use this recording to carry out a detailed analysis of Deletaille's breathing patterns. Though the listener will likely become accustomed to these pronounced inhalations, the extent to which they compete with the music is a touch galling on first hearing.

There seems to be little question that the selling point of this disc is, somewhat ironically, the 'novelty' of hearing a sonata played on its original instrument. Given the relative brevity of D821 (approximately twenty-four minutes), an appropriately generous filler had to be settled upon. This is probably the only time that the great String Quintet in C major, D956 has ever assumed that role. And yet, from the profoundly nostalgic opening gambit of the work, the Quatuor Rosamonde (along with Deletaille, now playing the cello) makes a case for this to be the disc's centrepiece. The sense of ensemble is palpable throughout, spawning endless moments of admiration. Listen out for the probing desperation of the third movement's Trio, and the magical, distant reminisces of the opening movement in the final Allegretto. An account of such poignancy and depth – aided by a warm, glowing sound – needs no accompanying marketing ploy other than its own outstanding merits.

By William Norris