“Driving across Canada” – Schubert’s late piano music

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing the legendary Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu. The concert took place in Reading, the place of my birth, and it felt strange to be returning, for the first time, to the city I left in 1969.

Radu Lupu (© Photo: Ivan Maly)

Because the train journey took over an hour, and I was meeting some friends at the concert venue, I decided to attend the pre-concert talk which was given by Chris de Souza, broadcaster, composer, music director and opera producer. Mr de Souza introduced Radu Lupu’s programme, which included Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata D894, the piece which would occupy the entire second half of the concert. Mr de Souza talked about the scale of the first movement (sometimes made, seemingly, more epic and expansive by the choice of tempo – Sviatoslav Richter’s being perhaps the most extreme, almost hypnotically slow) and how Schubert seemed to be exploring ideas about to present the piano sonata in a new way, perhaps in an attempt to free himself from the strong influence of composers such as Mozart and Haydn, and especially Beethoven. In a way, this Sonata, in particular its long opening movement, became the blueprint for the three final Sonatas (D958, 959 and 960) – and by the time Schubert came to write them he had come to a compositional conclusion about how to organise his material to create a long and compelling narrative which runs through all four movements of each Sonata and indeed connects all three Sonatas. The scale of these sonatas is extraordinary: the first movement of the D960 can take 20-25 minutes to play, around the length of an entire Beethoven sonata, and each work displays a huge variety of music and emotion.

In discussing the late Sonatas, Chris de Souza also mentioned the Impromptus, and described playing them as being akin to “driving across Canada”. This metaphor really resonated with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more while I listened to Radu Lupu’s exquisitely beautiful playing. In Lupu’s hands, with the opening movement of the D894 taken at a leisurely but never plodding moderato, one had the sense of traversing a vast landscape, but the journey was never tedious nor flat.

(Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian)

I have been working on the F minor Impromptu, the first of the D935 for some months now, in preparation for several concerts I am giving. Returning to practise the piece the day after the concert, the idea that this music was like “driving through Canada” kept returning and as I played I thought more and more about the journeys on which Schubert takes us in his music. The most obvious example, of course, is Winterreise, his turbulent song cycle completed just before he wrote the Impromptus and the late Sonatas. But in the Impromptus too there is a sense of a journey, from the chilly, bare G at the opening of the first of the D899 to the consoling warmth of the closing cadence of the A-flat Impromptu. In the D935, the sense of a narrative which runs through all four is even stronger –  Schumann suggested that Schubert had a sonata in mind when he wrote this set. The musical landscapes are highly varied, sometimes difficult to scale, with rapid shifts of mood and colour, sometimes within the space of a bar or two. As a performer, one has to be extra alert to these shifting landscapes, with an ability to carry the narrative flow from the opening bars to the final closing cadence. The word “impromptu” suggests a short, improvisatory salon piece, yet Schubert’s pieces are anything but. Tightly constructed and lengthy (the big F minor Impromptu lasts over 10 minutes), these are complex works which encompass the broad sweep of human emotion and experience. They are certainly not drawing room sweetmeats. It is worth noting that by the time Schubert wrote these works, and the final piano sonatas, he would have known he was dying, from syphilis, compounded by mercury poisoning (ironically, as the consequence of the “cure”). In early nineteenth-century Vienna, this illness would have made Schubert a social pariah. This sense of isolation and social taboo is very apparent in the music: without wishing to sound fanciful, it is as if Schubert is pouring every ounce of his personal angst, tinged with moments of pure joy and tender poignancy, into his music.

I have recently started work on the penultimate piano sonata, the D959 in A major. Here, the sense of traversing an epic landscape is even stronger than in the Impromptus, and Schubert uses motivic and structural signposts throughout the four movements to enhance this sense of a journey (for example, the opening measures of the first movement are reprised in the closing bars of the finale). In the Andantino (second movement) we return to the fremdling of Winterreise, the lonely traveler groping his way through a strange and confusing landscape, a sense of confusion which becomes even more apparent in the middle section, a psychotic fantasy which tells us a great deal about Schubert’s mental and physical health at the time of writing this extraordinary music. In the opening movement there are passages of great consolation, Schubert the songsmith coming to the fore, but these are offset by moments of almost schizophrenic hysteria. One’s duty as performer/interpreter is to find connections, within the individual movements, and the work as a whole, in order to lead the listener on a unique journey deep into Schubert’s musical landscape. It is some of the hardest music to interpret and play convincingly – yet also some of the most beautiful and rewarding.

Richter plays Schubert G Major Sonata, D894

One thought on ““Driving across Canada” – Schubert’s late piano music”

  1. Dear Frances

    Recently I went to a screening organised by A Nos Amours at the ICA as part of the retrospective season of films of Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman, sensibly programmed over a 2 year period. Chantal’s partner and collaborator for a long time was the cellist Sonia Wieder Atherton. She appears in some of the early short films practising Shostakovich in La Paresseuse and performing Dutilleux. On the musical score Chantal made a straight documentary for La Sept TV of Brendel at the piano discussing Schubert’s late sonatas and playing contrasting passages. I attempted to record on my iPhone as there don’t appear to be DVD’s of the individual films and it surprised me that this beautiful gem of an interview which is practically and reverently all Brendel, more like a lecture or a masterclass than a standard arts documentary interview, has not been snapped up and shown by BBC or Channel 4.
    Unfortunately the image didn’t turn out but for reference purpose the sound is passable. Interestingly Brendel discusses the late music in relation to psychology. He discusses meaning; Schubert’s fear; his fear of the shadow of death. Brendel speaks of the death of Schubert’s Mother though this could be read as an analogy for the fear of his own impending death, which is felt in the pictorial chill of the Winterreise and held in the intention of the elegiac message of the poetry. It was rare to hear key, tempi, harmony and daring dissonance being discussed in relation to Schubert’s physical and psychological state, in functional proximate life terms, thinking of real journeys as passages from one physical state to the next, and if there is a next, if there is a philosophy.

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