Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, after producing more or less definitive recordings of much of the Baroque and Classical repertoire for violin and keyboard, here turn their attention to Schubert's early sonatas. Manze, in his own programme note, explains why he reverts to the original designation, sonata, rather than sticking with the titles of sonatina and duo which were rather condescendingly applied to the works on their belated publication. These works, composed by Schubert when he was nineteen and twenty are proper sonatas, no less so than Mozart's, he argues.
It is clear from these performances, detailed and lovingly played, that Manze fully believes what he writes. However, these earlier works show a Schubert whose instrumental composition was still lagging a significant way behind his achievements in song. Although there's plenty of melodic inspiration there's very little in the way of imaginative development of material. In some ways the high quality of the playing almost served to emphasise the relative deficiencies in the music, I often wished for them to have something more meaty to get their teeth into; some of the later works or even, 'cellist permitting, the trios.
There's still a great deal to enjoy, though. Egarr's Salvatore Lagrassa fortepiano is a fine instrument, mellow-toned, without any off-putting clanginess and he plays it beautifully, always at one with his partner. As for Manze, he is his usual self: he sounds improvisatory yet disciplined, he's not afraid of a touch of portamento here or there and plays with sparing vibrato. He produces a sound that can be sweet or disconcertingly bare, as in much of the A minor Sonata D.385's first movement. In this movement I also love the way hushed Egarr's statement of the theme – a bizarre inspiration based on wide intervals – is answered with real power by Manze.
That sonata is a fledgling masterpiece, fully living up to Manze's claims for it with several recognisably Schubertian touches. Manze and Egarr are at their best in its urgent finale, creating a world of dramatic contrasts that really brings it to life. The Sonata in G minor D.408 is slightly more modest in scale and ambition but has a fascinating slow movement; mid way though - anticipating some of the later instrumental works - the genteel, biedemeier elegance breaks into a moment of passion that is fully unexpected. However, at this stage in his career Schubert doesn't quite yet have the means to effect the kind of melting transition back to the main theme that he would have done later on.
The A major sonata's opening Allegro moderato, one of the first of Schubert's instrumental movements that aspires to the characteristic heavenly length that Schumann so admired and here the airy, mellifluous sound of Manze's fiddle is a delight, even though you sometimes wonder whether his very sparing use of vibrato truly is authentic for music of this period. The first sonata on the disc, in D major D.384, is the least original and, with only three movements of little over four minutes each, the shortest and least ambitious of the works, although it boasts a lovely, song-like middle section to its Andante, played with disarming simplicity and beauty.
In sum, then, this is an excellent disc. Manze and Egarr are never run-of-the-mill and these performances have all the qualities we'd expect from their playing, breathing new life into these pieces, which hint at the greatness of the instrumental works to come. It's all recorded in very clean, well balanced sound. Highly recommended.
By Hugo Shirley