The musical Fantasy (or Fantasia or Fantasie) has its roots in improvisation and rarely follows a strict musical structure (such as Sonata or Ternary form). In this respect the Fantasy is related to the Impromptu (a genre favoured by Schubert). The term was first applied to music in the 16th century and suggested an imaginative musical idea rather than a specific compositional structure. The Fantasia became popular in the Baroque period, its form offering scope for free invention and musical imagination with alternating sections of differently textured music – demanding toccata-like/virtuosic passages, slow recitative often embellished with many ornaments, improvisation, free modulation, deceptive cadences or fermata, and varied characters and mood. In a typical Fantasy, the composer sets out a theme at the opening, or near the beginning, and the remainder of the music is a musing or musings on the theme, full of drama, imagination and expression.

It is principally in improvisations or fantasias that the keyboardist can best master the feelings of his audience – CPE Bach

The “Wanderer” fantasy – one of Schubert’s most well-known and frequently performed works, and one of the greatest pieces in the entire piano repertoire – takes the fantasy form to another place, developing an idea (it is based on one of his own songs) to create a substantial work in four sections (or one long movement), linked by a unifying theme on which all four movements are based. Structurally, the Wanderer is akin to traditional sonata form: the first section sets out of the main theme (an “exposition” as it were), the second, “slow movement” section acts as a development, the third section – a scherzo and trio – is the recapitulation; and the final section acts as a coda, which reinforces the tonic (C). Throughout the work, thematic and rhythmical “cross-references” create a sense of unity between the sections (a device Schubert was to use again in his late piano sonatas). The final Allegro section is unquestionably a “finale”, containing the most obviously virtuosic music of the entire work and exploiting the full sonic range of the instrument (for an interesting exploration of this “sonic range”, I recommend Alexander Melnikov’s 2018 recording of the Wanderer on an 1820’s Alois Graff fortepiano).

But the Wanderer breaks free of classical disciplines in that it is designed to be performed without a break between the sections. In addition, the repetition and gradual variation of motivic elements, the daring use of harmonies and “remote” keys, the bold symphonic sweep of this work, and its dramatic power and emotional tension mark Schubert as a “romantic progressive” whose influence was clear in the works, for example, of Liszt (his B-minor Sonata and E-flat Concerto) and Richard Strauss (symphonic poems). The principal challenge for the pianist, in addition to the learning and upkeep of all those notes, lies in maintaining a unifying narrative thread and an underlying sense of forward propulsion throughout the whole work.

Schubert’s earlier, rarely-performed ‘Grazer’ fantasy, also in C, is closer to the Baroque and Classical model, yet it laid the foundations for the Wanderer and the later Fantasie in f minor for piano four-hands, D940. The provenance of this work is disputed (a copy whose title page was written by Schubert’s friend Joseph Huttenbrenner was discovered in the 1960s in the Graz estate of Rudolph von Weis-Ostborn). It is thought to have been composed around 1818 and as no autograph exists, its authenticity is still in doubt. However, there are clear “Schubertian” elements which closely resemble other works by Schubert, such scalic and chromatic runs, Polonaise rhythms, the mercurial emotional landscape of the work and varied colourings, and, perhaps most obviously, the beautiful Bel Canto opening melody, fragments of which recur throughout the work in different guises and keys – a device which is also used in the Wanderer and the D940. The lyrical opening theme is fully reiterated at the end, dissolving into a gentle cadence of quiet nostalgia, which in itself looks forward to the hushed, plaintive ending of the Fantasy in f minor, D940.

The most unexpected transition in the Grazer Fantasy occurs at bar 55: after the beautiful opening section – a simple but highly lyrical melody in octaves in the right hand over an extended Alberti bass which fades into a delicate pianissimo passage – a fermata following a brief descending chromatic scale signals the change. What is so magical is the shift to F-sharp major and the Alla Pollaca (polonaise) section, which despite the quiet dynamic range, is sprightly and bright in mood. This is followed by the first of several startlingly dramatic passages before the Polonaise returns. These seemingly casual, almost improvisatory, yet highly virtuosic sections employ devices found in Mozart’s keyboard fantasies such as chromatic passages in widely contrasting registers and arpeggiated figures in the left hand. Rather than linking sections, they feel more like virtuoso interludes, redolent of similar passages in particular in Mozart’s Fantasy in c minor, K475, and they create a continual sense of restlessness and drama, only briefly relieved by the fragmentary return of the opening melody. Calm is restored in bar 281 with the restatement of the opening theme, lightly embellished with runs and trills.

In the Grazer fantasy Schubert finds much of emotional depth, expression and changes of mood, which he was later to put to even greater effect and intensity in the f-minor Fantasie for four hands, D940.

Rarely performed today (I have never heard this work in concert myself), the Grazer fantasy was given its premiere by Lili Kraus shortly after it was discovered, and subsequently recorded by her (Odyssey, 1970). Other notable recordings include James Lisney (through whose 2006 recording I first discovered this work), Michael Endres (Oehms, 2009) and Paul Berkowitz (Meridian, 2017). The score is published by Barenreiter.

 

Here is Paul Berkowitz, who has lived with Schubert’s music for many years. His reading is reading is rich, romantic and glamorous.

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Style

 Getting all the notes of a piece under our fingers is only the first step on the way to performing. It’s what happens after this that engages the listener and makes the performance memorable. Of course, we naturally want to be different and make our playing stand out from the crowd, but it’s no good if we go a little overboard and play in the wrong style. Style is very important, and can be quite subjective. It’s something that we can always look into at a greater depth, and just one reason why musicians are always students.

Style is often dictated by the period in which the music was written. You wouldn’t expect a character in ‘Downton Abbey’ to come into a scene wearing a pair of skinny jeans, would you? Similarly, you wouldn’t want to play a piece in such a way that the listener is no longer able to understand how it could have been written in a certain period. The tone we use has a huge bearing on style. Recently, I played the beginning of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in B flat major (BWV 825) to one of my teachers, and his first comment was that I needed to alter my tone. The sound I was producing would have been far more suited to the work of a romantic composer such as Brahms, so I needed to lighten my touch in order to make my style more appropriate for the work. The same principle can be applied to flexibility; a performer may choose to pull the tempo around in a Chopin Nocturne to a degree that would be out of character in one of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

A good way to implement style is to think about the instrument for which the music was written. Yes, you’re probably going to be thinking “erm… piano”, but remember that our instrument has come a very long way from the first pianos of Cristofori in the 1700s. Of course, the music of Bach and Scarlatti would have been written for harpsichord, an entirely different instrument indeed! This does sometimes throw up disagreements over certain aspects of playing, such as the use of sustain pedal, but as long as you think generally about the instrument, then you will be far better off than if you’d disregarded the matter!

However, to play a piece stylistically doesn’t mean that you are to play in a certain way when it comes to interpretation. This is what brings originality to your playing, and makes the music as current now as it was when it was written. To demonstrate my point, below are two famous recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BMV 998), both recorded by Glenn Gould. The first was recorded in 1955, the second in 1981: both are examples of style fitting to Bach’s writing, but both recordings differ dramatically when it comes to Gould’s interpretation. You only need to listen to the opening few bars of the Aria to see my point:

Lewis Kesterton is a pianist currently studying at Birmingham Conservatoire. Read his blog here

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Schubert’s glasses

Schubert. This entry on the letter S would not be complete, for me at least, without a mention of Franz Peter Schubert, a composer whose music I have loved and lived with all my life: as a young child hearing my father play Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsem (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’) on the clarinet, my own LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, my first encounters with the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux for piano in my mid-teens, as a precocious student who could play the notes, but who understood little of where this music came from or its emotional depth. Returning to the piano in my late 30s after an absence of some 20 years, it was Schubert’s music to which I turned first, revisiting the Impromptus initially, and then the late piano sonatas, with the benefit of musical maturity (the result of a lifetime of listening and concert-going rather than playing at that time) and life experience. As an argumentative teenager, often to be seen at weekends on CND marches, the old radical Beethoven had been my hero, a composer who wore his heart on his sleeve and whose life-affirming music declaims his existence, at once full-bodied and triumphal, but also other-worldly and philosophical especially in his late works. Schubert speaks more quietly: his soundworld is introspective, and intimate. He takes us into his confidence, and he is often at his most tragic when writing in the major key. His music packs a vast emotional punch – the range of emotions expressed within a piano miniature, such as the Impromptu in f minor D935/1, are startling, their unexpectedness underlined by his daring use of harmony and his expansiveness (which Schumann described as his “heavenly length”), underpinned by an innate sense of musical geometry and architecture. As a consequence, there are many interpretative possibilities in his music.

If Beethoven is notable for his musical structures and energy, Schubert is the spinner of beautiful melodies, music which speaks of his life in Vienna, of socialising and music making with friends, country rambles and joie de vivre (think of the joyful holiday moods of the  ‘Trout’ Quintet), but always shot through with darkness and heartbreak. He had plenty of intuitions of mortality during his brief life: he contracted syphilis in 1822/23, at that time an incurable and shameful disease, and lived in a city on a continent wracked by revolution and war. These were turbulent times, both personally and politically, and his music reflects this in its emotional voltes faces – all those layers of feeling and chains of emotions – perhaps most strikingly expressed in the slow movement of the Sonata in A, D959 or in the Fantasy in F minor, D940.

Frances Wilson pianist, writer, teacher and author of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.

Geoffrey Saba

Two concerts in as many days, both in beautiful deconsecrated churches and both featuring the piano music of Franz Schubert. The first concert was at St John’s Smith Square, a church in the heart of Westminster regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture. The venue also offers one of the finest acoustics for piano music in London, performed on this occasion by pianist Geoffrey Saba.

The programme opened with Schubert’s Sonata in B D575. Written when the composer was twenty and cast in four movements, it is suffused with sunshine and joy and Schubert’s special gemütlich, elegantly nuanced by Saba who played with a genial tone and acute sense of Schubert’s intimacy. The Four Impromptus D935 followed, and again we were treated to playing which was sensitively shaded and tastefully voiced, from the plaintive duetting fragments of the first Impromptu, through the long-spun theme and variations of the third to the sprightly and folksy flavours of the fourth. After the interval came the Sonata in A, D959, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, composed in the last year of his life. Much has been written and debated about Schubert’s last three sonatas, in particular their length, the cyclic and motivic elements which they share, and, with regard to the A major Sonata, the extraordinary Andantino second movement, which is quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote.

For those who assert that this is Schubert’s “most serious” sonata I would highlight Mr Saba’s keen sense of the work’s life-affirming qualities, particularly in the final movement which unfolded with warmth and wit. In the opening movement there was a clear sense of the contrasting architecture and fastidious attention to articulation, while the Scherzo’s arpeggiated chords sparkled, contrasting with the more pastoral elements of this movement. Mr Saba observed all the Da Capo repeats (which many pianists choose to omit), lending a greater sense of significance to this movement and creating balance across the entire work. The slow movement opens with a melancholy barcarolle or folksong. Spare pedalling allowed us to appreciate the profound simplicity of this section before the “acute emotional disturbance” (Alfred Brendel) of the middle section. This was refined playing, always alert to Schubert’s lyricism, combined with a willingness to allow the music to speak for itself.

Geoffrey Saba will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

www.geoffreysaba.com

Alan Schiller

On Sunday afternoon more Schubert at St Mary’s Perivale, a tiny 12th-century former chapel in west London. This venue is home to a lively and varied series of concerts, and attracts fine artists, both established and younger musicians. On this occasion we were treated to music for piano 4-hands by the Schiller-Humphreys Duo (Allan Schiller and John Humphreys). Both acclaimed in their own right as soloists, Schiller and Humphreys have been playing as a duo for over thirty years – and it shows in their relaxed yet perfectly synchronised style and evident enjoyment of the music they play. I page-turned for John and Allan at a concert at Steinway Hall in June 2015 and was afforded a rare and at times entertaining insight in to the “special relationship” of the piano duo.

John Humphreys

Sunday’s programme featured what is arguably the greatest work for piano duo, Schubert’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, to which John and Allan brought a keen sense of the narrative of the work while also highlighting the special characteristics of each movement. The rest of the concert featured music for piano 4-hands by Mozart (at his most profound and reflective in the Sonata K521 and rather more lighthearted and witty in the Andante and Variations K501), Hindemith’s Sonata for Piano duet which contained interesting echoes of the Schubert in its first movement, Ravel’s ever-popular Mother Goose suite and three Hungarian Dances by Brahms. The pianists, through their relaxed and friendly manner, created a convivial atmosphere, helped in no small part by tea and cakes after the concert, giving audience members a chance to mingle and meet the artists. An entirely satisfying and civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

More on St Mary’s Perivale here

At the Piano with John Humphreys (interview)

Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert

Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.

The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.

I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.

In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:

  • The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
  • Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
  • Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
  • Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
  • Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
  • Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
Extract 1
Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 3

Download the complete score

Further reading

Charles Fisk – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas

John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms

The first of a new series of occasional posts…..

I was given this album by a friend for my 40th birthday in autumn 2006. I thought turning 40 would be easy: I told myself it was “just a number” and that it had no real significance, that it was just another day in my life. In fact, my birthday coincided with a difficult period in my adult life, when I realised, with a shock, that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration.

During the year of my birthday, I started playing the piano seriously again after an absence of over 15 years (in the preceding years I was busy getting married, setting up home, working in publishing and antiquarian bookselling, having a child, and I lost interest in the thing about which I cared very passionately when I was at school). Some of the first pieces I returned to were Schubert’s D899 Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux, pieces I had always liked, and attempted and played rather badly as a precocious teenager (my mother bought me the score after hearing Alfred Brendel play them – more about this here). Returning to the piano after such a long time away was very hard, yet it was gratifying to find pieces that had been carefully learnt in my teens had not been entirely forgotten and were still “in the fingers” (as a professional pianist colleague of mine said once “the body does not forget that easily” – and it’s true). At that time, I didn’t even have a piano: I was playing, and teaching, on a digital piano, which did the job, but had none of the subtlety nor refinement of an acoustic piano.

At the time of my birthday, I was doing a lot of reading about Schubert’s Impromptus, pretending this was “research” for my (still unpublished!) novel ‘Facing the Music’. (Looking back, I realise the writing and “research” was a kind of displacement activity, self-preservation against a tide of confusing emotions.) The Impromptus have a special significance for the hero of my book – a young concert pianist poised on the cusp of a brilliant career until the First World War cruelly intervenes – and each one connects him to particular people or events in his life. It is significant that in his first concert after the war is over he plays the Impromptus as a way of reaffirming these connections and celebrating life and love.

Of course, in reality these late piano pieces of Schubert, together with the D935 Impromptus and the final three sonatas, are the works of a man who almost certainly knew the end was near. Dying from (probably) syphilis, these works, composed during a remarkable outpouring of late masterpieces, display many emotions, from anger and defiance (the D958 Sonata in C minor) to resignation and valediction (the last Sonata in B-flat, D960). The Impromptus are in many ways miniature versions of these big works: full of variety, containing a broad sweep of emotions from the chillingly bare G which opens the first of the D899 set to serenity of the third in G-flat and the final, life-affirming cadence in A-flat major of the fourth Impromptu.

The Fantasie in F minor, D940, which opens «Resonance de l’Originaire», was composed in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life, and is written for four hands (two pianists at one piano). It has a four-part structure, not unlike a sonata, but the “movements” run into one another with stylistic bridges between each. Schubert had already explored the Fantasy form in his Wanderer Fantasie D760, a bravura work full of heroism and energy. By contrast, the opening motif of the D940 is elegaic and wistful, a distant horn call accompanied by murmurings in the lower register. In the hands of the pianists on this recording, the mood is melancholy, almost desperately tragic, yet tinged with great tenderness. Typically of Schubert, the mood soon takes a volte face with a new, more hopeful motif in the lower register, and throughout the work there are contrasting shifts of mood from poignant and heart-rending to dramatic, longing, intimate, charming and dance-like, and characteristic shifts between minor and major. The textures, shared between the two pianists, give the work an inner richness, and the reprise of the first theme is a touching reminder of the work’s underlying sadness.

This piece has, on occasion, reduced me to tears, not least for its connection to my emotional crisis mentioned above. When I was fortunate enough to hear it performed live by the artists on this disc, during Maria Joao Pires’ memorable Wigmore Hall residency in 2007, I think I wept throughout the entire performance, moved not only by the music itself, but also the fact that I was in the presence of an artist whom I greatly admired and respected (and continue to).

The other work for four hands on this double cd recording is the Rondo in D951, which provides a delightful salve after the emotional impact of the D940. Maria Joao Pires also plays one of the earlier sonatas, the genial D664 in A, while Ricardo Castro opens the second disc with the D784 in A minor, which shares some of the same emotional territory as the D940 in its sombre opening statement and dramatic Beethovenian gestures throughout the first movement. The final work on the disc is the Allegro in A minor, D947 “Lebensstürme”, also for four hands.

Musically and emotionally Pires and Castro seemed conjoined in the works for four hands on this album, while Pires’ solo performance in the Sonata in A is tender and delicately shaded. (This was more than borne out in their live performances at the Wigmore in 2007.) I haven’t listened to this recording for a long time: for a while, I found it just too painful, but when I decided to launch my new series ‘Music Notes’, it was the one thing I knew I wanted to write about. Listening now, with the benefit of 8 years of hindsight, life experience, this blog, two music Diplomas under my belt, a thriving and popular piano teaching practice, my concert and exhibition reviewing, and many other exciting and stimulating musical and writing activities, I have enjoyed the album for what it is: a sensitive and passionate reading of some of Schubert’s finest music for piano.

Maria Joao Pires returns to the Wigmore Hall later this year for a series of ‘Artist Portrait’ concerts to mark her 70th birthday.