There's a certain amount of arrogance involved in recording masterpieces in the classical repertoire that have already been recorded and re-recorded by generations of great artists. The question to be answered is always: What is there of value that has yet to be said? And so it was a delight when Sony recently issued Murray Perahia's double-disc set of Schubert's last three piano sonatas. Here is an imaginative performer perfectly suited to Schubert's marriage of vocal grace with emotional immediacy. Perahia's technical gifts are more than adequate. Whether it is sustaining blocks of harmony in the opening of the "A Major sonata," or arpeggiating chords like a river overflowing its banks, the bass always serves as a stage for the melody above. And Schubert, the consummate composer of songs, is given a singing voice in Perahia's playing that reveals a sensitivity in the piano that seem impossible for such a dinosaur of an instrument.
But in Schubert, these insouciant filigrees and guileless melodies alternate with moments of great pianistic calamity. Bridging these two musical worlds is always the Schubert pianist's greatest interpretive challenge. And unfortunately with Perahia, there are moments where the dramatic flow seems more to derail than be diverted. The slow movements in general, and specifically the one in the great "B-flat Major sonata," are played with perhaps too much indulgence. It's one thing to play slowly, but quite another to let the musical line starve and die. What was meant to seem hymn-like becomes a dirge.
However, in the more balanced passages, where melodies flow -- gracefully or uncontrollably -- Perahia is the most generous of guides. Even the Beethoveen-like conclusion to the "C Minor sonata," as capricious and propulsive a piece as any Schubert wrote, is played as though the melody were flitting from barline to barline just out of view. And when the great scales leap up to interrupt the fun, the familiar music accommodatingly springs to new life. This is the sort of playing that puts Schubert at the vanguard of Romanticism, although everything about his style of writing was rooted in the Classical era. And that may be the greatest reason for these sets to take a place on the shelves of any music lover: They reveal something new to the listener. In a field inhabited by giants, that's no small feat.