SANTA FE, N.M. â” The world would be a better place if Schubertâs final piano sonata, the B flat (D. 960), were everywhere in it. The first two movements of this majestic piece are its heart and soul, each gorgeous in its own way, and if the slighter third and fourth movements disappoint at all, it can only be in relation to that impossibly beautiful first half, with its heavenly lengths.
Over the last week Iâve had a glimpse of what that blessed world might be like. When I attended Marc-AndrÃ© Hamelinâs recital as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music on July 24, I knew I would be hearing Anton Nel play the Schubert B flat at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado the next night, and hearing Shai Wosner play it in the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art here on Tuesday afternoon as part of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. What I didnât know was that Mr. Hamelin, in a late program change, would also play the B flat, since he had been scheduled to perform Schubertâs late A major Sonata (D. 959).
So a veritable feast: three performances of this magnificent work in three cities within seven days. Mr. Hamelinâs performance, already discussed, was a more or less epic tour de force, delivered with ease and sheer mastery.
Mr. Nel, showing the pieceâs susceptibility to different conceptions, brought a nervous energy to the start and skipped the repeat of the long exposition but eventually settled into a comfortable flow. This promising start gave way to sensitive reading of the glorious second movement, Andante sostenuto. Unfortunately, Mr. Nel seemed to tire and lose an edge of concentration in the third and fourth movements.
That was understandable, given the demands of the first half of his varied program, which included Debussyâs âEstampes,â three wide-ranging, virtuosic character pieces, and Granadosâs colorful âAllegro de Concierto,â all of which he played spectacularly well. Like Mr. Hamelin, Mr. Nel opened with a Haydn minor-key sonata, in this case the B minor (Hob. XVI:32), which he made sound almost like Scarlatti at the outset, with a dry, detached touch, before nudging it toward a more Romantic fluidity in the later movements.
But the prize for clever contextualization went to Mr. Wosner in his shorter program here on Tuesday. He opened with Schubertâs roiling KlavierstÃ¼ck in E flat minor (D. 946, No. 1) and segued directly into JÃ¶rg Widmannâs âIdyll and Abyss: Six Schubert Reminiscences,â a 2009 work that surrounds Schubertian riffs with tone clusters, out-of-kilter harmonies and other postmodernist gestures (even a bit of whistling). A passage near the end quotes the opening of the B flat Sonata, which followed after a momentary break.
Mr. Wosnerâs interpretation, in the brisk pace of its start and in its overall intimacy, represented yet another fruitful approach to the work. Mr. Wosner tended to understate gestures often stressed or overstated: those deep, rumbling trills that interrupt the opening melody, the startling shift into C sharp minor at the development section. But with a slight delay, he brought just the right emphasis to the otherworldly transformation from brooding C sharp minor to radiant C major in the Andante, which then went on to end like a quiet prayer.
The sense of intimacy was curiously heightened by the young Mr. Wosnerâs physical appearance. In profile at the keyboard, with his curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he needed only pudgier cheeks to look like the Schubert of contemporary portraits.
Mr. Hamelin, after his masterly performance of the Schubert B flat, politely declined the audienceâs clamor for an encore. Mr. Nel said he thought it was probably illegal to perform an encore after that work but offered one anyway, a fluent performance of Mozartâs Rondo in D (K. 485). Mr. Wosner, showing no qualms, simply sat down and played Schubertâs Hungarian Melody (D. 817), a way to decompress after the sonata without deviating from his theme.