Darkness Becomes Her: Dina Ugorskaja’s Schubert

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

When Dina Ugorskaja performed a piano recital at Munich’s Herkulessaal in late 2017, replacing on short notice the originally scheduled pianist, her program featured the great Schubert B-flat major Sonata. Even after some very dark late Schumann and otherworldly Scriabin, it was impossible to envisage that D. 960 should be still darker, still more gripping. But it was. Smallest oddities among the notes got explored; slightest tensions between two lines were investigated and picked off like a scab on a slowly healing wound. It became a veritable musical Rorschach test: Ugorskaja performed Schubert’s music and the listeners saw (or heard) whatever they were inclined to: Night Watchmen’s shadows, black butterflies, or flitting Nazgûls.

The picture of this recording, made a mere eight months after that concert, is only slightly less dark, slightly more lyrical, and slightly less prone to pour salt into the wounds. It is, however, similarly intensive and scrupulous. This brings about tempos that are potentially record-setting without being out to set any. Ugorskaja takes us on a real tour de force, especially in the delicately towering first movement that lasts for more than half of the nearly 50 minutes she spends on this sonata. The Andante sostenuto gets slowly underway, and you have to make–and take–time in order to appreciate Ugorskaja’s pausing and to perceive her remembrances. (Only Khatia Buniatishvili pulls it more deliberately apart.) Her right hand sings; the left hand gently strokes the listener, only to poke him or her in the ribs for the third movement.

Her Finale is, at first, more contemplative than Michael Endres’ friendly pearled-off play or Kempff’s granite-cool energy. It is certainly less out for contrasts than the same movement with the pedal-bathing, tulle-to-thunder Buniatishvili. The very end, though, is played more reticently than usual: Relieve, not triumph, is the overriding emotion. If there’s any fly in the ointment, it’s that Ugorskaja has a tendency–noticeably in the Andante–to slow down at phrase ends: more mannerism than borne out of inner necessity.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a crêpe (the mourning garb, not the superior pancake) were draped over these Three Pieces D. 946; they certainly sound it. Schubert knew of his impending death at the time of composing–and Dina Ugorskaja of hers, when she recorded them in January, 2019: Her battle against cancer had already become about gaining time, not emerging victorious. (She succumbed in September.)

But while the E-flat Allegretto sounds more profound than usual, it is far from gloomy. Ugorskaja explores the colors–dark reds and warm browns–rather than become sentimental. It’s hard not to become sentimental, though, when listening to her Schubert or looking at her picture on the notable cover. Not a glamor shot; not featuring her long, curly hair (as did past covers), but short, now straight, post-therapy hair. Eyes wide open, subtly challenging. It’s a picture of seriousness and strength-through-vulnerability; humility and resolve. Franz Grillparzer’s epitaph for Schubert comes to mind when we think of what rich possession art has entombed with Dina Ugorskaja, and what far fairer hopes, still.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Sonata: Lupu (Decca); Fleisher (Vanguard), Three Pieces: Larcher (ECM), Moments Musicaux: Uchida (Philips/Decca)

    Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major D. 960; Three Piano Pieces Op. Posth. D. 946; Moments Musicaux Op. 94 D. 780
  • Dina Ugorskaja (piano)

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