Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Schubert – C Major Sonata, D. 840

Schubert – G Major Sonata, D. 894


Like almost every other festival this year, Petworth’s annual summer music festival, which normally takes place in July, fell victim to the restrictions imposed in response the coronavirus pandemic, but rather than cancel this year’s festival altogether, its organisers sensibly moved the music festival to the autumn and combined it with the literary festival. The events are all online, though some are live, with audience, to create “a real ‘Petworth’ feel about them” (Stewart Collins, Artistic Director) and, as always, there’s a fantastic line up of performers and guests, including Sheku and Isata Kanneh Mason, The London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley, and Mitsuko Uchida. Petworth Festival always attracts an impressive roster of performers and amply confirms that there is very high quality music-making to be found outside of the capital.

We’re all pretty used to watching concerts via livestream and videocasts now; superior technology allows such broadcasts to be presented with high-quality sound and visuals, which undoubtedly enhances the experience. It’s impossible to entirely recreate being in a concert hall, but one of the advantages of livestream is that you can choose when the view the concert: watch it live or at your own convenience, perhaps in the middle of the afternoon, as I did with this particular concert. With my laptop connected to the tv in the living room and a cup of tea in hand, I settled down to enjoy Mitsuko Uchida playing two sonatas by Franz Schubert.

I’ve only ever seen Uchida performing in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall, yet every time she has managed to shrink the space, drawing us into her personal, musical world to create the atmosphere of a salon concert. This is particularly true when she plays Schubert, a composer who despite writing large-scale works, is a master of the introspective, and, as I have written on this blog, a composer for these corona times.

Uchida is very alert to Schubert’s idiosyncrasies, his chiaruscuro and elusive, shifting moods, and I always feel that she is very at home with this music. She creates the most remarkably sense of intimacy through hushed pianissimos, tapered sonorities and a sensitivity to Schubert’s “psychological dynamics” – where a fortissimo, for example, is tempered by a certain restraint and emotion is implied rather than made explicit in sound. She highlights details or moments of significance with a touch of rubato here, a little more pressing forward there, and these feel spontaneous, of the moment, never contrived (of course the ability to do this so effortlessly comes from a long association with the music and a deep knowledge of it).

Uchida also seems to subscribe to Andras Schiff’s assertion that one must “follow” Schubert, allowing the expansiveness of this music to unfold gradually. Her melodies have a warm cantabile, her dynamics subtly shaded, often revealing dark, mysterious layers beneath.

In the D894, described by Robert Schumann as “most perfect in form and conception”, she created a timeless serenity in the opening movement, opting for a relaxed moderato (rather than Richter’s famously ‘meditative’ slowness) to allow the narrative to flow naturally into the dramatic grandeur of the development. What followed was a second movement with a contrasting rhythmic vigour in the more passionate passages, a tender, folksy lullaby in the third movement, and an elegant, supple finale replete with pastoral charm.

122117455_4474452515958519_7672388628339138679_oSchubert isn’t a showy composer, and nor is Uchida a showy performer. For this concert, she was dressed soberly in a dark fluid trouser suit, but there was a glint of showiness in her footwear – the most elegant silver shoes which lent a roccoco flair. Of course, the superb camera work allowed one to enjoy such details: to get up close and personal with the performer as the camera lighted on her  hands and face, revealing myriad expressions, often unconscious, and which perhaps offered a glimpse to the personality beyond the notes.


Petworth Festival continues until 1 November – more information

Photo credits

Decca/Justin Pumfrey

Petworth Festival

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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.

Steven Isserlis, cellist

 

 

 

When you see such a fragment, it brings you slightly closer to the struggles of the composer

Yehuda Inbar

4260330917126-cover-zoomWhy 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.

Highly recommended


Yehuda Inbar: Schubert – Finnissy – Widmann is available on the Oehms Classics label

 

 

 

 

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 unmistakably 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