Schubert…..makes tears catch at the edge of my eyes; such fragile hope, such powerful emotions.
Ian McMillan, poet (via Twitter)
I was reminded of Ian McMillan’s quote while listening to the final lunchtime lockdown concert from London’s Wigmore Hall, a devastatingly beautiful, austerely unsentimental yet profoundly poignant rendering of Schubert’s late great song cycle Winterreise, performed by tenor Mark Padmore with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Music so fitting for these strange days, with its narrative of loss, longing and separation.
Schubert is the composer for our corona times. Listening in isolation to performers playing to an empty hall, this acccount of isolation, its chill frequently tinged with the tenderest poignancy, seemed particularly appropriate. We are at home, but we are separate, living in our “bubbles”, unable to hug our family and friends, yet finding a sense of closeness, warmth and solace through music.
That same sense of isolation is evident in the Andantino from Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, or the bare “horn call” first subject of the F minor Fantasie, D940, the fearful tread of the second movement of the Trio, D929, or the haunting opening measures of the unfinished sonata D 571. There are numerous other examples, of course….
In both the Andantino of D959 and the D929, it is those unexpected modulations into the major key, when the sun comes out to warm one’s skin and the chill of winter momentarily recedes, that make this music so magical, so breathtakingly extraordinary in its harmonic and emotional volte-faces. And then, only a few bars later, the melancholy and the sorrow flood back…. Often even more tragic in the major key, it is as if Schubert recognises the darkness visible, acknowledges and accepts it.
No one does chiaroscuro quite like Schubert: he mixes light and dark more subtly than any other composer and colours his musical palette with an elusive hue of mystery. Light and dark, levity and depth all reside in close proximity in Schubert’s music, perhaps even more so than in Mozart’s (and Mozart too is a master of light and shade).
I’ve loved Schubert’s music, and, more specifically, his later piano music since I was a child. I grew up listening to my parents’ recordings on LP of the ‘Trout’ Quintet, the Unfinished and ‘Great’ Symphonies, the string quartets, and The Shepherd on the Rock, which my father would play on the clarinet – and, when I became a more competent pianist, I would accompany him. When I was about 12, still a fairly novice pianist, my mother gave me an Edition Peters score of the Moments Musicaux and both sets of Impromptus – works which portray in perfect microcosm the breadth and variety of Schubert’s artistic vision and emotional landscape. I stumbled my way through these works, mostly too advanced for me at the time, though there were fragments of each which I could actually play. I took the A-flat Impromptu to my then teacher and instead of ticking me off for trying to learn music which was far in advance of my capabilities, she helped me find my way through the score. At this time, in the late 1970s, Schubert was regarded as the poor relation to Beethoven, his melodies sweet as sachertorte, his structures incoherent, and his emotions too introverted. Then I had little knowledge about Franz Schubert beyond the notes on the page, but there was definitely something that drew me to his unique soundworld….
Much as I love Beethoven, his gruffness and uncompromising spirit, as I’ve grown older I turn more and more to Schubert’s introspection, his tenderness and his intimacy. He speaks more softly, more personally than Beethoven for me. His unmatched gift for melody enables him to spin the agony of desire, melancholy and sorrow, and the joy of living – and a whole gamut of emotions in between. He has a remarkable ability to switch rapidly between terror and lyricism, from the darkly tragic and melancholic to golden transcendence or joyous other-worldliness, all rendered in music of incredible, almost revolutionary inventiveness. Often this is achieved through the most miraculous modulations, an unexpected sonic shift and, for me, as a synaesthete who sees the musical keys in colour, a completely new luminosity.
His other great skill is in managing rests and pauses. Silences abound, freighted with poetic imagination and who knows what, suspending time and offering pause for reflection, while also clarifying the structural expansiveness of the music, his “heavenly length”. In addition, Schubert’s use of dynamics is often ‘psychological’ rather than purely physical, suggesting an intensity of feeling rather than volume of sound. As pianists, we shouldn’t play Schubert as if you would Beethoven (though some do!). Even in his grandest gestures, for example the fff passages in the first movement of the Sonata in G, D894, there’s a restraint. His generous use of pianissimo in particular creates an ethereality in his music as if hovering between different states of mind.
In those moments, his music makes you feel as if you are the last person in the universe…..
How does one explain Schubert? The simple answer is – one can’t.
When you see such a fragment, it brings you slightly closer to the struggles of the composer
Why did Schubert leave so much music unfinished? Was it the rapidity and volume of his compositional output that works were set aside, and not revisited? Did he feel dissatisifed or struggle with certain pieces? In this impressive debut disc, Israeli pianist Yehuda Inbar seeks to throw light on the conundrum of the unfinished piano sonatas by this most introspective composer by presenting the fragmentary Sonata in F-sharp minor, D571, and the ‘Reliquie’ Sonata in C major, D840 together with Michael Finnissy’s Vervollstandidung von Schuberts D840 (in effect the third and fourth movements of the Reliquie) and Jorg Widmann’s Idyll und Abgrund.
There have been some notable completions of the D571, enabling pianists to perform a “complete” sonata in concert, but Inbar chooses to present this work in its incomplete form, finishing without warning before the recapitulation, a fleeting 7 minutes of extraordinary, intimate poignancy. Inbar’s account is elegantly paced with a warm, richly-hued sound (recorded on a concert Bechstein as opposed to a Steinway). The highlighting of certain details, including interior voices and bass accents, reveals the Mozartian clarity of Schubert’s writing and his fondness for long-spun songlines.
By contrast the C major sonata, probably the most significant of Schubert’s unfinished works, is Beethovenian in its grander orchestral textures and gestures, yet always shot through with the most intimate, introspective writing, its ambiguity made even more explicit through Schubert’s fondness for unusual harmonies and unexpected modulations. The transition between the F-minor sonata and this one works here because the C major Sonata opens with a sense of uncertainty, a spare, haunting motif rather than an emphatic statement. Inbar’s account is robust when required, but he is also acutely sensitive to the mercurial nature of this music.
Michael Finnissy’s piece is a stand-alone work but also completes the D 840 and was written for Inbar, who premiered it in May 2017. Finnissy describes Schubert as someone who has been “heavily marketed by the media, whose personality has been very frequently discussed….We don’t know our last moments and we shouldn’t think we know Schubert’s last moments either…I didn’t want a slow decline into an autumnal coda. I just wanted it to stop, almost with a question mark. Has it finished, has it not finished? What more do we know about Schubert from listening to this?” The work intriguingly interleaves distinctly Schubertian idioms and motifs with instances of unexpectedly crunchy dissonances and dramatic outbursts. Like the D571, it ends ambiguously. If you half-listen you might think this is pure Schubert in a particularly idionsyncratic mood, and, taken with the Widmann which follows, it’s instructive in revealing the essence of Schubert’s writing and the influence and pull of that writing on composers who followed him. Here, the new shines a light on the old, and vice versa.
The extremes of Schubert’s emotional landscape are reflected and distorted in Jorg Widmann’s Idyll und Abgrund, six little Schubert ‘reminiscences’ which combine dreamscapes, brilliance, drama and violence with fragments of Viennese waltzes, raunchy Ländler, and even a child’s music box, complemented by a whistle by the pianist, all handled with immediacy and panache by Inbar.
I missed Krystian Zimerman’s London concert last April when he stood in for the indisposed Mitsuko Uchida and gave what was by all accounts a remarkable performance of Schubert’s last two sonatas, works written in the dying embers of the young composer’s life yet imbued with nostalgia, warmth, an intoxicating bitter-sweetness and, ultimately, hope.
It’s rare for Zimerman to come to London; even rarer for him to release a new disc. He feels that high-quality digital recordings have created a homogeneous sound and style, robbing art music of spontaneity and leading audiences to expect perfection on disc and in concert (something I largely concur with, based on my regular concert-going). Thus, he’s very particular about what and when he records. This is his first recording of Schubert’s last two sonatas and his first solo album for a quarter of a century – and my goodness it was worth the wait! The recording was made in Japan using a Steinway with Zimerman’s own keyboard (which, incidentally, he made himself) inserted into the instrument (like the great pianists of the past, such as his mentor Arthur Rubinstein, he travels on the condition that his own instruments and/or separate, particularly-voiced keyboards accompany him, to suit the repertoire he is performing). The result is impressive, the bespoke action producing a sweetly singing tone and wonderful clarity. In the liner notes (which take the form of an interview) Zimerman explains that the special piano action “is designed to create qualities Schubert would have known in his instruments. Compared to a modern grand piano, the hammer strikes a different point of the string, enhancing the ability to sustain a singing sound…..”
But of course it’s not just the bespoke action which makes Zimerman’s sound so special. No, there is more, much more to this performance. Overall, there is an immaculate sense of pacing, so sensitive and natural; the first movement of the final sonata, for example, unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the hymn-like first subject theme imbued with joyful purpose which gives the music forward propulsion without ever sounding hurried (it’s a leisurely mässig). In the first movement of the D959, the grandeur of the opening sentence gives way to the wistfulness and intimacy of an impromptu – and immediately Zimerman’s sense of phrasing is revelatory, shedding light on details hitherto skimmed over by others and demonstrating a complete understanding of Schubert’s architecture and narrative, both within movements and the works as a whole.
Throughout, there is subtle rubato in his contouring of phrases, thoughtful use of agogic accents to highlight intervallic relationships or strikingly piquant harmonies (so much a feature of Schubert’s late music), a Mozartian clarity in the passage work and repeated chords (for example in the development sections of both first movements) and an understanding of Schubert’s very specific rests and fermatas – attention to tiny details which create remarkable breathing spaces and enhance the structural expansiveness and improvisatory character and modernity of this music. Restrained use of the sustain pedal creates transparent textures, most notably in the slow movements: the Andantino of the D959, too often the subject of musical “psychobabble” and emotional wallowing, has a desolate gracefulness in its outer sections which contrast perfectly with the hysteria of the central “storm”. When they come, the Scherzi (both marked Allegro vivace) are light and ebullient, though Zimerman is always aware that Schubert is often more tragic when writing in the major key. In sum, every bar is carefully considered and insightful, yet at no point does this music sound fussy, overly precious or reverential. This is some of the most natural Schubert playing I have encountered and it suggests an artist with a long association with and deep affection for this music
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have spent the last three years studying and learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. It has become something of an obsession for me, initially forming the bulk of my programme for a Fellowship Performance Diploma and now a piece of music I simply can’t let go of. I have heard many recordings of the sonata from Schnabel and Cherkassy to Andsnes, Leonskaja and Barnatan, in addition to five live performances (including by Piers Lane, Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and mostly recently Paul Berkowitz). When one spends so much time with a single piece of music, one can grow fussy, pedantically so, about how this music is presented in concert and/or on disc – so much so that I have stopped seeking out the work in concert because I listen far too attentively and critically for my own good…..and talking of “Goode”, the one and only live performance I really enjoyed, the one which left me with the feeling that this was how Schubert would have wanted his music performed, was by the American pianist Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2016 (of which more here). In Krystian Zimerman I have found my new benchmark, not just for the D959 but as a demonstration of how Schubert’s piano music should be played.
Very highly recommended
Such is the spell of your emotional world that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of your craftsmanship
– Franz Liszt on Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert/Krystian Zimerman/Piano Sonatas D 959 and D 960
In the autumn of 2014 I set myself the task of learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No 20 in A, D959. My intention was to learn and finesse the work to be performed in public, confidently and convincingly. I wanted the challenge of immersing myself in a large-scale work over a long period of time: it would test my ability to plan and use practise time intelligently, to set and fulfil goals during the process, and to reflect on learning outcomes. The work was to be included in the programme for a final performance qualification, for which a very high level of musical competency and professionalism was required. In this series of essays, I will explore my approach to learning this work, and what I have gained from the experience. I hope my reflections will offer useful resources to others and serve as a “travelogue” of my journey through this sonata.
So why this sonata and not the final sonata, D960? My reasons were twofold: 1) from the point of view of the professional assessment, I felt most people would select the D960 if choosing a late Schubert Sonata; 2) the Sonata in A has always been one of my favourites for its open-hearted warmth and nostalgia (notwithstanding the extraordinary slow movement).
The Sonata in A always seems to provoke strong reactions: whenever I mention it online, a whole host of other pianists will comment, citing the slow movement in particular as a significant clue to Schubert’s mental state at the time of the work’s composition. Some commentators suggest that this movement, more than anything else that Schubert wrote, is the clearest indication of the effect of his illness (advanced syphilis) on his mental state and his music. This article offers some frank and disturbing insights into syphilis and its treatment in the early nineteenth century, specifically in relation to Franz Schubert. The side-effects of the illness and its treatment may well have had a detrimental effect on Schubert’s mental state, and it is thought he also suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression (his friends reported periods of dark despair and violent rage). The traditional clichéd, sentimental image of Schubert as the cheery songster or cherubic “little mushroom” is refuted by these accounts. Is the slow movement of the D959 a manifestation of both depression (the opening and closing sections) and mania (the middle storm)?
Another issue which merits consideration in relation to this sonata (and indeed the others which form the final triptych) is the notion of Schubert’s “late style”: whether a sense of his own mortality presaged a change in his compositional style in the works written in the final years of his life. In On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006, and LRB article here), Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence, which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, reconciliation – “fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present” (Edward Said). But rather than express acceptance or a sense of his own mortality, Schubert’s last works seem to communicate an “incompleteness”, that he had much more to say, and suggest “the triumph of artistic achievement over the degradation of death and disease, the permanent presence of death” (Lorraine Byrne Bodley, Schubert’s Late Music, Cambridge: CUP, 2016).
The Sonata in A, D959, certainly expresses these sentiments: it is joyous after the darkness of the C minor Sonata, D958, which precedes it, and its themes are springlike and lilting. In this respect it is related to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. If ‘Winterreise’ is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, this sonata, and other works from the last year of Schubert’s life, reveal, and revel in all of life – intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming, never unremittingly melancholy or heavy.
A programme note….
Schubert completed his final three piano sonatas in September 1828, just a few months before his death at the age of 31. These were the first works of the kind he had composed following the death of Beethoven, a composer whom Schubert much admired, and his last three piano sonatas pay tribute to Beethoven: indeed the first of the three is even cast in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. Schubert numbered the three sonatas sequentially, perhaps envisioning them as a cycle. After his death, Schubert’s brother sold the manuscript to the publisher Diabelli, but the sonatas were not actually published until 1839, and they were dedicated to Robert Schumann, a keen advocate of Schubert’s music.
The final year of Schubert’s life was one of extraordinary productivity, marked by increasing public acclaim and declining health (he had been suffering from syphilis, and the debilitating effects of its treatment, since 1822/23). In addition to the three final piano sonatas, the last months of Schubert’s life saw the appearance of the Drei Klavierstücke D946, the Mass in E-flat D950, the String Quintet D956 and the posthumously published ‘Schwanengesang’ songs, amongst many other works, all of which display a high level of artistic maturity.
The almost complete survival of the manuscripts of the final three piano sonatas suggests that they were written in two stages: a preliminary sketch, probably made in the Spring of 1828, and a full, final version, most likely notated in September 1828, which contains many remarkable transformations and changes. For example, in the working draft of the Sonata in A, D959, the initial theme is presented in the style of a chorale, without the octave leaps in the bass which give the final version its rhythmic propulsion, and the calm melody of the second subject has far less rhythmic tension and expansiveness. The final version is also particularly notable for its cyclic innovations.
During the 1820s, Schubert had begun to experiment with cyclic devices, whereby motifs or themes established in the opening movement recur elsewhere, often subtly modified, to create an enhanced sense of “belonging” between the various sections and movements. For example, in the Sonata in A, D959, the majestic opening sequence of chords in the first movement re-emerges, much reimagined, towards the end of the slow movement, which then forms the melodic outline of the Scherzo and its Trio; the closing bars of the finale refer back to the opening of the first movement; and the arpeggiated ending of the slow movement anticipates the spread chords of the Scherzo. These simple cyclic motifs, and an innate sense of musical geometry which allows Schubert to draw the whole sonata together at its conclusion, represent his boldly experimental approach to traditional sonata form, further reinforced by a dramatic expansiveness, and the daring underlying harmonies which create contrasting and often startling musical hues and shifts of emotion.
The first movement opens with noble chords which give way to a gentler motif whose falling arpeggio figure could have come straight out of an impromptu. These two motifs form the melodic and rhythmic basis of the first movement and indeed the entire piece. The second subject, a lyrical theme in the dominant key of E major, leads into an intensely chromatic triplet passage culminating in a dramatic section built on descending arpeggios which recall those from the opening. The second subject returns briefly at the close of the exposition, fused with a quiet echo of the urgent triplets from earlier on.
Instead of developing the main thematic material from the exposition, as is traditional in classical sonata form, the development section deals entirely with new material and in the first section the harmony constantly oscillates between C major and B major. Later on, a passage first in C minor and then the tonic minor appears, based on the motif which opens the development.
The recapitulation is traditional: it remains in the tonic and emphasises the tonic minor and the flat submediant (F major) as subdominant tonalities, while the second subject is presented in C major. The coda restates the opening sentence, but in a much more hesitant manner: marked pianissimo, it is interrupted by whole bar rests with fermatas, while the left hand imitates pizzicato strings. The movement closes with gentle ascending arpeggios which mirror those from the opening. It is not until the close of the fourth movement that the opening theme is restated in its full-bodied guise.
The second movement, marked ‘Andantino’, is in F-sharp minor (the relative minor key of A major) and is in ternary (A–B–A) form. It opens with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by descending seconds with a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The almost hypnotic main melody recalls several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Schubert creates an almost static quality in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register.
The middle section unfolds like a fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. This leads to a serene phrase, redolent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3), which leads back into the opening melody, now with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.
The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the brilliant arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by a dramatic descending scale which recalls the stormy middle section of the previous movement. A reference to the main melody of the Andantino is heard in the ensuing passage before the opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, Schubert reimagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serene choral quality.
The finale is a Rondo whose scheme is modeled on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no.1. In fact, the only truly imitative element is Schubert’s reworking of the slow movement theme from his Piano Sonata in A minor, D537, composed more than a decade earlier, to which he brings the lilting gentleness of ‘Im Fruhling’ (D882). Scored in sonata-rondo form (A–B–A–Development–A–B–A–Coda), this lyrical movement comprises an almost continuous triplet movement and a songful melody, replete with striking harmonic and emotional shifts. The development section culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor which refers back to the dramatic middle section of the Andantino. The ensuing passage leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again with the second subject in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, which recalls the hesitancy of the coda in the first movement. The final section of the coda is marked Presto, and here agitated and exuberant arpeggios, redolent of those from the first movement, overlay fragments from the main theme in the bass before arriving at a dramatic false cadence of sforzando chords. Now a fragment of the main theme is heard again, this time marked pianissimo, before the closing statement of sforzando chords, based on the majestic chordal theme of the opening of the Sonata.
Not a “top ten”, merely a selection of performances nominated by readers of this blog and followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook. Please feel free to leave further suggestions or your favourite recording in the comments section of this post.
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