When is a piano not a piano?

When it submits to the dizzying, audacious Musica Ricercata. The Wigmore Steinway found new voices – drums, horns, tinkling bells and great bellowing bass rumbles – in Roman Rabinovich’s mesmerisingly theatrical and witty performance of Ligeti’s eleven-movement musical algorithm. Based on the Baroque ricercar, the set of pieces are linked by a gradual reveal of pitches and structural progression, culminating in a fugue. This was an ambitious and, for some, uncompromising opening to a concert which also comprised music by Bach and Schubert. As befits this musician who is also an artist, Rabinovich drew myriad colours from the instrument, all infused with a rhythmic bite and vibrant sparkle which took full advantage of the crisp tuning of the piano.

That same rhythmic bite and richly-hued sound palette found a different voice in Schubert’s piano sonata in c minor, D958. Composed in 1828 and completed shortly before the composer died, this is his hommage to Beethoven, and the unsuspecting listener could easily be forgiven for mistaking this for one by the old radical himself. Yet Schubert’s more introspective nature is always there, in the shifting piquant harmonies and mercurial volte-faces of emotion and pace. Those who favour the “Schubert knew he was dying” approach to the last three sonatas would have been disappointed: Rabinovich’s performance proclaimed “Choose life!”, particularly in the rugged (but never earnest) orchestral vigour of that deeply Beethovenian opening movement, and the rollicking, toe-tapping tarantella finale (which had a woman across the aisle from me air-pedalling frantically while jiggling up and down in her seat). The second movement was a hymn-like sacred space of restrained elegance and mystery, oh so redolent of Beethoven in reflective mood, yet unmistably Schubert in its intimacy and emotional breadth.

The Bach Partita, which came between Ligeti and Schubert, tended towards romanticism (no bad thing – I play Bach with a romantic tendency), while the bright sound of the piano afforded some delightful filigree ornamentation.

Based on what I heard last night, I look forward to hearing Rabinovich’s new Haydn piano sonatas recording (the second of which is in production).


Wigmore Hall, Friday 25th January 2019

Ligeti
Musica Ricercata
Bach
Partita in D, BWV828
Schubert
Piano Sonata in C-minor, D958

Roman Rabinovich, piano


Meet the Artist – Roman Rabinovich

On Artistic Process

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The final instalment in a series of essays exploring my personal independent study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. This essay first appeared in The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK.

O thrice romantic master, wouldn’t you like to stroll under the cherry blossom with your love in the daytime and listen to Schubert in the evening?

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

In the spring of 2016, when I was in the final throes of preparation for my Fellowship performance diploma recital, I had some physiotherapy treatment on my left shoulder and arm. At one of the sessions the physiotherapist asked me if I had been doing a lot of lateral arm movement with the left arm: she had identified an area of muscle which was tight and slightly over-developed. I explained that in the finale of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, the left hand plays a repeating triplet figure, for which an almost continuous lateral arm movement (or a “polishing” motion on the keys) is required for the 13 or so minutes of the movement.

This anecdote illustrates several points about the finale of the D959: that it is a long movement of almost relentless forward motion and one which puts considerable technical and physical demands on the pianist.

The opening movement and the finale provide the bookends for this large sonata: both are a similar length (if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement, which I do) and both have an expansiveness which takes pianist and listener on some intriguing musical highways and by-ways. By creating a finale of such length and involvement, Schubert gives us a sonata with a perfectly-balanced structure: two large outer movements surround two shorter inner movements

The finale is a Rondo whose structural 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. It is a glorious statement with which to close this wonderful work.

The cyclic elements, first encountered in the opening movement, are evident in the finale, most obviously the short-long “ta tah” figure which is heard in the very first notes of the movement: the first subject theme begins with a quaver followed by a quaver rest and then a minim. This same motif reappears in the tumultuous minor section (bars 146-157) and of course in the recapitulation of the first subject (bar 328). Rests and fermatas (also cyclic elements encountered in the first movement) provide dramatic pauses in the flow of the music’s narrative, the most striking coming at bar 327 and throughout the coda, reinforcing the reiteration of the first-subject theme, and reminding us of the opening movement.

The triplets, which begin in bar 17 and remain an almost-continuous feature of the Finale, provide a unifying thread and create a stream of bubbling movement. They are both lyrical (for example bars 17-24) and serve to underpin the harmony, particularly when forming the accompaniment. At other times, they suggest orchestral textures, when coupled with chords in the other hand (for example, bars 37-44 or 112-116). They must, of course, be played with evenness throughout (lots of lateral arm movement!) and should not be rushed: pushing the tempo of this movement (which is marked Allegretto) will result in a performance which sounds relentless rather than responsive and good-natured.

Despite the movement’s tight structure, it moves along with the sense of  “fresh-minted inspiration carving out its own natural path as it goes.” (Newbould) and in order to convey this to the listener, I feel one should take Schiff’s advice and “follow Schubert on his journeys and recognize its various stations”. Thus, shifts in melody, harmony and rhythm should feel spontaneous and natural, and it is this seamlessness which gives the movement its character, such that it could almost be performed as a stand-alone work. It is a movement rich in varied material and texture, from the genial first subject, which is clearly drawn from string quartet writing, to a second subject (first heard in the right hand at bar 46) which suggests woodwind, with string accompaniment. There are brass fanfares (bars 41 and 43, for example) and grand dramatic orchestral gestures (bars 146-160) and even a passage deeply redolent of Beethoven (bars 179-211).

The challenge of learning this movement, in addition to the learning and upkeep of so many notes, was retaining a sense of the through-narrative of the music, while also giving it the requisite breathing space and natural contours, both within phrases and in longer sections. But it is, for me, one of the most satisfying of any movements of a sonata to play, largely because of its free-ranging flow of ideas.

***

Reflecting on the experience of tackling such a large sonata, perhaps the most obvious aspect I have taken from this is an enhanced ability to practise deeply and efficiently, taking note of every detail in the score and continually examining and questioning the composer’s intentions. This kind of “musical detective work” was supported by extensive reading and listening (on disc and in concert), and conversations with professional pianists who regularly perform this repertoire, all of which gave me a deeper appreciation of Schubert’s astonishing creativity and inventiveness, an appreciation which I have subsequently applied to learning or revisiting some of his shorter piano works, including the first set of Impromptus.

I also learnt that it is not possible, mentally or physically, to devote one’s entire practise regime to a single work, and by “resting” the sonata while I learnt other music allowed me to return to it with renewed interest and fresh ideas. Thus the learning process became a “musical adventure”, peeling back the layers of this extraordinary music to reveal its greater depths and intriguing mysteries. It has been deeply satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and hugely beneficial to my general development as a pianist.

I am indebted to my teacher, Graham Fitch, for his very positive support and encouragement during the long learning process, and also to concert pianists Daniel Grimwood and James Lisney (both fine Schubert players) who offered me challenging food for thought on Schubert, the man and his music.


Select bibliography

Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)

Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)

Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)

Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)

 

Favourite recordings of the D959

Richard Goode (Nonesuch, 1988)

Radu Lupu (Decca)

Inon Barnatan (Avie, 2013)

Krystian Zimmerman (DG, 2017)

 

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I have watched pianist Lucas Debargue with interest since he burst onto the international music scene as the “runner up” in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. Described as a “maverick” and a “late starter” because he didn’t have a traditional musical training in conservatoire and doesn’t wear the customary concert attire, he interests me because he has a very personal artistic vision and creative freedom – almost certainly the result of not following the traditional well-trod path of the young concert pianist. (The cover photo on his latest disc seems to reflect this – the artist treading a lonely, snowy path.)

Since then, he’s released two impressive recordings in quick succession. Now this much-anticipated third disc presents a brace of familiar Schubert sonatas – the so-called “little” sonatas in A minor (D784) and A Major (D664) – with a rarely-performed piece, Karol Szymanowski’s second piano sonata, also in A Major. Debargue brings a dark emotional intensity, poignancy and rugged earnestness, when called for, to the first Schubert sonata and also the Szymanowski, thus creating some interesting and satisfying links between two works which on first sight may not appear connected. He fully appreciates the bleak  melancholy inherent in the D784 with its mysterious spare opening motif and the portentous trills and rumbling tremolandos, offset by passages of tender wistfulness (Schubert can feel even more tragic when writing in a major key). The Andante is elegantly paced, but not without its passions, while the finale is frenetic and anxious, its scurrying triplets tempered by sections of bittersweet lyricism.

Ostensibly more “cheerful”, the little A Major has its share of heartrending moments, not least in the second movement to which Debargue brings a desolate intimacy, without ever losing sight of the natural poetry of this music. The finale is sprightly with melodic clarity aplenty and much rhythmic verve.

Any pianist who records Schubert must be very sure of his or her ground, and in these sonatas Debargue displays a musical maturity and thoughtful insight to give a performance which is both convincing and personal.

There’s a brooding melancholy and blistering restlessness in the opening movement of the Syzmanowski sonata which recalls the dark clouds of Schubert’s D784, while the middle movement has a quirky Schubertian tread to it, initially dance-like then more sombre and funereal, and its unusual harmonic language, fluctuating tonalities, and expansiveness also recall Schubert’s writing. It’s a rewarding work, with its full-blooded passionate late-romantic textures (which have gone by the time Szymanowski wrote his third piano sonata), and Debargue is alert to its shifting palette and dark intensity, as well as its monumental structure and narrative thrust.

There’s nothing youthful or unformed about Debargue’s playing in all three works on this disc. There’s a genuine, uncontrived naturalness in his playing, especially in his use of tempo rubato, and his overall approach is mature and thoughtful, suggesting an artist who has not only fully immersed himself in this repertoire but also informed his playing via a wider cultural landscape and interests.

Recommended


Review of Lucas Debargue’s debut disc

Several things have happened since I started this series of articles about my learning and study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. The first is that after a long period of reflection and time away from the piano following my disappointing Fellowship diploma result, I started playing the sonata again – and with a very different mindset from last year – and the second that I have been commissioned to write a series of articles about the sonata for ‘The Schubertian’, the journal of the Schubert Institute (UK). This allowed me spend more time analysing and studying the music away from the piano, in conjunction with some serious reading and listening, all of which has thrown new light on the music for me and enabled me to approach it differently, and (based on my teacher’s comments at my latest lesson), more successfully.

The following article on the first movement of the sonata combines simple analysis with some personal thoughts on practising, interpretation and musical narrative.

“The performer only has to follow Schubert on his journeys and recognize its various stations”

Andras Schiff

The first movement has a symphonic sweep in its generous breadth, and an appreciation of Schubert’s orchestral writing is essential in approaching this movement, in terms of its textures, implied instrumentation and narrative flow. Much is made of Schubert the spinner of beautiful lieder melodies in his piano music, as elsewhere, but in the later Piano Sonatas we find Schubert the composer of tautly textured string quartets and large-scale orchestral writing. To better appreciate and respond to these aspects of the sonata, my “further listening” on disc and in concert has included the ‘Great’ C major Symphony, D944, the String Quintet in C, D956 (which Schubert composed during the final months of his life), and the String Quartet in D minor, D810, as well as the late piano music (the Impromptus) and of course the other two sonatas which comprise the final triptych. Such listening has proved invaluable in my understanding of Schubert’s distinct soundworld and idioms, and incorporating these sounds and textures into my own interpretation of the piano sonata, alongside my personal “vision” of the work, has enabled me to create a performance which is, I feel, three-dimensional and rich in orchestral detail.

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Autograph score of the first draft of the first movement in which the opening sentence is more simplified than the final version

The movement opens with a majestic six-bar sentence comprising declamatory chords in the treble which leaves us in no doubt that this music is in the key of A major: there are no less than 14 A’s in the top voice in this sequence. For me, this opening sentence has all the grandeur and poise of the introductory sequence in a Bach keyboard Partita, and its “stand alone” quality is made all the more impactful by what follows it.

Next a sequence of descending arpeggios, marked piano, which could have come straight out of an impromptu with its idiosyncratic intimacy. The contrast between this section and the opening is striking and is the first example, of many, of Schubert’s musical and emotional volte faces which pepper this work. In bar 8 another cyclic motif is introduced, the short-long “ta-tah” rhythmic gesture (here a crotchet followed by a minim) which feels like a musical intake of breath in surprise or wonder, almost an “ah ha!”. This motif will also appear in various reincarnations throughout the work. It requires precise articulation and little or no pedal so as not to blur the transition from the first note/chord to the second, to retain an element of surprise, and to ensure the upward harmonic movement in the bass is clear; this is particularly important when the motif appears again as a quaver and minim separated by a rest (for example, at bars 23 or 28/9). These apparently tiny details create remarkable breathing spaces and suspensions in the music and clarify the structural expansiveness and improvisatory character that pervade this movement (and also the finale). The suspension from bar 6 is further reiterated in bar 13 and is not fully resolved until the A major harmony of bar 16, where the opening sentence and successive arpeggiated figure interact in another new idea whose bass line reflects the opening sentence in its ascending chords.

In just 50 bars Schubert gives us so much material. Varied, dramatic and contrasting in both weight and pace, it is far more than one would expect to find in the exposition of a traditional Classical-era sonata, and here, as elsewhere throughout the sonata, we see Schubert’s rich inventiveness, his desire to explore new ideas and his use of the piano sonata form as a vehicle for vivid experimentation and wide-ranging emotional impact. The challenge is how to integrate all these ideas while also retaining the improvisatory/evolutionary character of the music. In fact, I prefer to follow Schiff’s suggestion – that one simply follows, responds to, and trusts Schubert’s wanderings, moment-by-moment: as mentioned previously, the cyclic motifs serve as unifying elements in the work, drawing these varied strands together.

The exposition’s second subject, introduced at bar 55, feels more like a traditional second subject: scored in the dominant (E major), it is a simple lyrical melody accompanied by string quartet textures. At the end of this section, one might expect a double-bar and an indication to return to the opening of the music to repeat the exposition, but instead Schubert introduces a turbulent extended chromatic passage leading to a climax of descending arpeggios which recall those from near the opening, followed by a declamatory, orchestral section (mm. 105-111). Despite the sforzando markings, I resist the temptation to give this passage a really full-bodied Beethovenian forte: this is, after all, Schubert not Beethoven, and I feel his dynamics are often psychological rather than purely physical, here suggesting an intensity of feeling rather than sheer volume. Greater emphasis in the bass helps to reinforce this. This section ends on a suspension: a whole-bar rest of complete silence before a passage based on the second subject. This pause needs to feel absolute, with a sense of “listening into silence” (Brendel), to create a magical contrast with the gentle lyricism of the passage which follows and the close of the exposition. The decision then is whether to repeat the exposition (which I do), or proceed straight to the development. Whatever the decision, there is no doubting the impact of the extraordinary modulation in the second-time bar (m 129) where the music moves into C major and the development is heralded by gentle pulsing quavers.

The development section, like the exposition, is not a development in the strict sense of the classical sonata structure: Schubert hardly develops the preceding material at all and instead a last-minute idea from the close of the exposition (mm 121-122) becomes the main motif. The section begins in C major but quickly oscillates between C and B major, which, together with the register in which it is played, creates an ethereal, almost hypnotically suspended atmosphere. The effect is further enhanced by moments of ambiguity in the modulations, where the music hovers momentarily in a minor key, as if passing, albeit fleetingly, into another realm entirely. The LH chords suggest a string accompaniment and should not be too “chugging”. Nor should this section be obscured by too much pedal. I aim for a Mozartian clarity here with little or no pedal: the overall effect should be “heavenly” and dreamlike.

A dramatic descent into the lower registers heralds the further development of this theme in the minor key. Now the atmosphere shifts again, to intimate and passionate, the pulsing quavers remaining as a unifying element. These continue as the music moves into the preparation for the recapitulation, now firmly in the dominant, as if the drama and darkness of the minor section is already long forgotten.

The recapitulation is traditional: it remains in the home key of A major, while the second subject is presented in C major. But at bar 219 the third motif from the opening is stated in A minor and an octave higher. This new variant echoes, momentarily, both musically and emotionally the minor-key sections from the dreamlike sequence of the development before the music moves into warm F 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. It feels like a nostalgic reminiscence of the opening sentence and to enhance this, I believe there is justification for broadening the tempo and lingering over certain elements, such as the appoggiaturas in bars 337 or 343, to create a wistful, hymn-like atmosphere. The movement closes with gentle ascending arpeggios, mirroring those from the opening section, the penultimate of which is in B flat major ending on an augmented sixth, which creates a sense of uncertainty, before the final gentle A major arpeggio closes the movement. The question of how to pedal these arpeggios is ambiguous. In both my Henle and Barenreiter scores, there is a pedal mark at bar 349 only. Any pedal I use here is for atmosphere: I like a slight wash of pedal, particularly with the B-flat major arpeggio, but too much will obscure the contours of this sequence. The softly-spoken, somewhat uncertain end to this expansive movement has the curious effect of setting the scene for the second movement without actually pre-empting it at all. When it comes, the Andantino seems distant and alien, so utterly different in character from what has gone before.

Such is the spell of your emotional world that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of your craftsmanship.
Franz Liszt on Franz Peter Schubert

 


Select bibliography

Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)

Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)

Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)

Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)

A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (read previous posts here)

With a good deal of reading, of both the score and books and articles on this sonata and Schubert’s piano music in general, and listening, and thinking, by late November 2014, it was time to embark on some serious note learning……

As noted in an earlier post, Schubert’s late piano sonatas are large-scale works: their first movements alone, with exposition repeats intact, can last as long as an entire sonata by Beethoven, and this “heavenly length” can pose problems for the performer in terms of stamina (it takes me around 43 minutes to perform the D959 in its entirety, with repeats), retaining a clear sense of the cyclic elements which recur throughout the work, and appreciating the overall narrative of the work. From my reading of the score, and other materials, I had concluded that the second movement, the infamous Andantino was the most “difficult” (though this is all relative when considering such a large piece of music!). This is the movement which provokes the most discussion and theorising amongst pianists, musicologists, critics and audience members, many of whom believe this movement is the clearest indication we have of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Musically, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of the D959, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic in its character and prevailing moods, and it is unlike anything else Schubert wrote. “Its modernity is incredible even today” (Andras Schiff, Schubert Studies). It has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Alfred Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section. Its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the majesty and expansiveness of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. In my own practical approach to this movement, I decided to ignore much of the psychobabble and work with what is given in the text.

The movement is in straightforward ABA (ternary) form, the A section reprised with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.

The middle, B, section unfolds initially like a Baroque fantasia (bars 73-86), with descending diminished seventh arpeggios which take the music into C-minor. Gradually all the elements speed up (Schubert indicates this through note sub-divisions, striking modulations and volume of sound) and 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 (bars 120/121). A short recitative-like section follows, interrupted by dramatic chords, before a serene passage reminiscent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3). The A material returns at bar 159.

The opening A section combines a barcarolle bass line with a right-hand melody redolent of 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. Some pianists like to treat this movement as a barcarolle with a storm in the lagoon (the middle section). Daniel Barenboim has called A section “a melancholy folksong”, a description which I particularly like: the lilting style of a folksong is implied by the recurring bass figure and the simple melody from which is unleashed the turbulent and chaotic middle section.

A rather chilly, tread-like quality in the bass is created through the use of staccato on the first note and the slur on the second and third notes, with the third note lighter (although this is not indicated specifically after bar 2, we can safely assume that this is what Schubert intended throughout). I found it helpful to think of this in terms of a cello or bass pizzicato figure: it needs resonance but should also be balanced with the right-hand melody. I don’t sustain the staccato note with the pedal here, and indeed the pedal is used sparingly throughout this section. The repeated use of falling seconds and a limited range, together with largely understated dynamics, create a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation. With so many repetitive elements in this section, it is necessary to create contrasting musical colour (for example between bars 1-8 and 9-12). At bar 19 the music moves into A Major, one of those magical Schubert moments where the mood seems at once warmer and yet even more poignant because it is expressed pianissimo. I like to use the una corda pedal for this pianissimo passage, and the corresponding passage at bars 51-54 to create a sense of other-worldliness.

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Page 3 of the Andantino with my annotations
Other details worth noting throughout this section (bars 1-32) are the inner voices in bars 7, 15, 16, 25, 29 and 31 (and then at bars 39 and 57), and the ornaments which should be played on the beat (though many celebrity pianists prefer to do otherwise, admittedly to beautiful effect). For example, in bar 15, the A sounds with the E sharp on the beat and the turn at bar 23 begins on the note above, but need not be pedantically with the bass C sharp. (See David Montgomery Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance for more on ornaments.)

At this point I feel it’s important to mention the overall tempo of the movement. It is marked Andantino, and needs a sense of forward propulsion. Despite this, some pianists tend more towards Adagio, and at this speed there is, in my opinion, a very fine line between the music sounding meditative or funereal, or even boring, which I do not feel is appropriate. I have aimed towards a metronome mark of quaver = c90 bpm. A quick browse through Spotify reveals quite a broad range of tempi, with some versions of the Andantino coming in at well over 8 minutes (Schnabel, Pollini, Uchida, Perahia) and others at around or under 7 minutes (Lupu, Schiff, Goode).

Here is Uchida

And Lupu

 

And so on to the B section, which leads to the most passionately and extraordinary part of the movement and indeed the whole sonata. It is typical of Schubert to create sections in the music which are vividly contrasting yet also complementary: the A sections are reflective in their lyrical subject while the middle section completely destroys this frame of reference, only for it to return at the reprise of the A section. It is the strong contrast between the A and B sections which makes this movement so arresting and so powerful.

The bridging passage begins at bar 69, and is preceded by three bars whose dark, descending chords mirror in their reverse movement the chords which form the opening sentence of the sonata (and a figure which recurs elsewhere). I like to create a sense of mystery in bars 69-72 with a wetter pedal effect and a little rubato to suggest improvisation as the music unfolds. The main difficulty I encountered in the entire B section was maintaining a sense of the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse and clarifying the different note hierarchies, while also continuing the improvisatory/fantasia feel. In order to achieve this, I drilled the section strictly with the metronome for several weeks, a tedious but necessary task for once the note hierarchies and subdivisions were well learnt, I could let the music break free, particularly in bars 102-122, to create a rising sense of hysteria. 

A clear sense of pulse is required through bars 124-146, as the recitative section takes over. After all the “busyness” of the previous page, I like to create a sense of the music being restrained once again, with the contrasting disruption of the FFz chords. At bar 147 the music arrives in C-sharp major in a passage which seems directly drawn from the G-flat Impromptu. At bar 159 the A section returns, this time with the more elaborate LH figure and the triplet figure in the RH, which should have the quality of a separate, “other” voice. Throughout this section, it is important to retain a sense of the opening melody and a similar lightness in the LH to that in the opening bass figure (note the demi-semiquaver rests at the end of each bar). Bars 177-182 the RH accented E’s sound as tolling bells above the melody, and once again I like to use the una corda pedal here to give a more ethereal quality and to create contrast with the forte chords in bars 185/66 and the descending figure in bar 187. The movement closes with dark, arpeggiated chords which echo those at bars 65-68, and which are transformed into sparklingly joyful spread chords in the Scherzo which follows. I try to keep these in tempo until bars 198/9 at which I introduce a rit. to signal the close of the movement. The dynamic landscape here is very quiet and muted, and I feel una corda is perfectly acceptable in these closing statements.

It took me three months of fairly consistent work to bring the movement to a point where I felt confident enough to perform it for others (for friends at home). I then “rested” it for some weeks while I turned my attention to the first movement, the subject of the next article.

It was Schumann who coined the phrase “heavenly length”, specifically in relation to Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, D944, though this tag has now become synonymous with all of Schubert’s late music.

How to approach a work of the scale of the Sonata in A, D959? In common with the other late sonatas (including the Sonata in G, D894), it is a big work, with a first movement which can last as long as an entire mid-period Beethoven Sonata, if the exposition repeat is included (and I believe it should be).

The D959 is indeed long: the entire work takes around 40 minutes to play, and for both performer and audience there is a sense of traversing an epic landscape. 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. 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, and there are many other cyclic elements – of rhythm, melody, articulation, and even character/emotion – which connect the four movements ). The cyclic elements also enhance the sense of a tightly organised structure: this sonata may be long, but it is not rambling (though some performers may make it so!). The first and the final movements are almost identical in length (c.13 minutes each if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement). These edifices bookend the middle movements which are also of an equal length – c.7 minutes each (roughly half the length of the first and final movements) if one observes all the repeats in the Scherzo. Some scholars have pointed to a “golden ratio” or “golden section” in Schubert’s structural organisation. Whether this was conscious on the part of the composer is not known, but from the performer/interpreter’s point of view an appreciation of this almost perfectly-balanced structure is important in creating the sense of a distinct structural and narrative arc that runs through the entire work.

In terms of embarking on the learning of all these notes, I decided to treat the sonata as four separate works, learning each movement as a stand-alone piece while also remaining alert to the cyclic elements within each movement and the whole work through regular study of the score away from the piano and listening to recordings of the complete sonata. From the outset, I had a clear timescale in mind: I wanted to have the entire sonata in the fingers (learnt but by no means finessed) by summer 2015, and having a clear focus enabled me to meet my target, almost to the day. What has interested me throughout the learning process is the fact that the notes themselves are not that difficult, and most of the time the writing lies comfortably under the fingers and hand. What has been far more difficult is achieving a convincing rendering of Schubert’s unique compositional voice – and maintaining this throughout c40 minutes of music. Too many interpreters treat Schubert as Beethoven’s “enfeebled twin”, but as the pianist Paul Lewis has noted “Schubert is more internally stormy than Beethoven, which perhaps make it all the more powerful…….. Schubert almost never provides the answers. There are always more questions than answers…….it’s a reflection of what we find in life“.

Schubert interpretation is riven with some doubtful traditions which developed in the nineteenth century, many of which have been subsumed into standard performance practice today. The best commentary on the music can be drawn from the autograph scores and contemporary evidence.

Schubert should never be stereotyped or over-interpreted: such treatment can straitjacket the music, reducing it to a simplistic highlighting of elements which the performer may feel are obviously “Schubertian” (beautiful melodies, nostalgia, poignancy, depression, emotional volte-faces, rage, joy etc) rather than allowing oneself the freedom to appreciate that this music is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Here is Inon Barnatan in the final movement of the D959, a reading I particularly like for his clarity and appreciation of the articulation, coupled with a real sense of the joy inherent in this music