I suppose this is what I deserve for studying performance practices, and what you deserve for reading a blog by professors. A student found an old recording of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata (arpeggione, which is a bowed guitar—also called a guitarre d’amour in its time—and piano), and shared it with me. Coincidentally, the very same day a different recording came in on an old LP, ordered by our music librarian. I mentioned before the I was dying of curiosity to hear what the thing was like, how idiomatic, etc. Now, at last, my chance! This rare instrument, how Schubert plumbed its depths, the new light about to be cast on a familiar piece…
The first recording I heard, very well played by Gerhart Darmstadt (arpeggione) and Egino Klepper (Schubert-era piano) did not change my world. It is always possible—I admit up front—that my expectations are colored by versions of the piece with which I have already become familiar. That said, my initial feeling about the arpeggione os as follows: it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Six strings on one bridge doesn’t give the player much in the way of room to maneuver without hitting other strings; a cello allows for much more room. On the basis of the melodies and textures I hear on this recording, I suspect Schubert was no more intimately familiar with the arpeggione that was anyone else; he was probably thinking of a “Supercello’ with a better high range than the cellos we know. This music seems to need a member of the violin family to speak, really: powerful bow-work is balanced by gloriously insouciant melodies. And the arpeggione sounds like a …viol. For me, at least, that’s just the wrong sound-world. The instrument is not sufficiently robust and extroverted to stand out against a Schubert-era piano, and the entire presentation seems like an idea that just didn’t quite work. Of course, the straight, uninflected, and polite (though wonderfully accurate) interpretation did not help bring vernacular Vienna alive for me, either.
Enter Klaus Storck, arpeggione, and Aloys Kontarsky, Schubert-era piano, on the 1974 Archiv recording. My objections are softened somewhat, but not completely. Where Darmstadt sounded a bit awkward on strums and chordal playing (what they English viol players called “playing the lyre way”), Storck sounds lovely. This recording also has a lot more Viennese vernacular flexibility and rhythmic kick (if you think I’m making this up, read Hans Gál on the subject), and so I found it more persuasive for that reason also. It is also recorded better, so the arpeggione does seem to hold its own against the piano.
All that said, I don’t regard a cello or viola transcription as so far off as to betray the piece. It is still a masterpiece, and works beautifully on the members of the more robust violin family. As it happens, I have just recently, for the first time, heard a recording of Ravel’s Tzigane for solo violin and luthéal, as was originally written—some kind of a contraption that made a piano sound more like a cimbalom, I think. Interesting, but the piano is fine on that one. For the Arpeggione Sonata, I’m fine with the middle strings, though clarinet, alto sax etc. are beyond the pale. It is possible to take the original-instrument fetish too far.
So, let’s summarize. Those who read this far have read my comparison of two long-out-of-print recordings of an instrument that had, essentially, the life of a dragonfly and had a negligible effect on the history of western music, and some philosophy in the bargain. Is this self-satire? Am I really this boring and peripheral? If so, at least it’s MY turf to stake out.
Go easy on the comments, please!