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

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

Roman Rabinovich, piano

Meet the Artist – Roman Rabinovich

On Artistic Process

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Startling contrasts

The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the sparkling arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The Scherzo serves several purposes in the overall scheme and narrative of the sonata: it provides a breath of fresh air between the Andantino and the Rondo (to omit a third movement and go straight to the finale would be too ponderous for Schubert), and through its tempo, concision and directness, highlights the breadth of the finale.

The second section of the Scherzo (m 17) begins with a LH figure redolent of the rambunctious opening of the third movement of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony and rich in ‘cello and double bass resonances. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by “startling flashes of irritability” (Schiff): a dramatic descending scale which recalls the middle section of the previous movement, with a reference to the desolate main melody of the Andantino in the ensuing passage. For a moment it seems as if the desolation of the previous movement has returned, but the atmosphere is quickly dispersed by a chord (m 47) before the effervescent opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, scored in D major, Schubert re-imagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serenity redolent of choral writing or a choir of woodwind, closing with a sequence of ethereal chords.

The opening section is then reprised via the Da Capo marking. The musicologist David Montgomery makes the case for observing all the repeats during the reprise. Like many piano students, I was taught that DC repeats should be dropped, a practice Montgomery suggests developed during the late nineteenth-century and certainly when early recordings began to be made, for reasons of limited disc or piano roll space. In the case of Scherzos or Minuets, there is almost complete agreement amongst performers that the DC repeats should be omitted (I have only heard one performance of the D959 in concert where the DC repeats were observed), regarding them as “vestigial” and unnecessary in such a diminutive movement as a Scherzo. In the case of the D959’s third movement, there is a good argument for maintaining them because 1) they make the movement longer, roughly equivalent to the Andantino, and thus create a sense of structural balance between the first and final movements and the inner movements (a “golden ratio”); 2) repeating previously heard material reiterates Schubert’s unusual harmonies and musical signposts (the same argument applies to exposition repeat in the first movement).

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)

Hetenyi, G: The Terminal Illness of Franz Schubert and the Treatment of Syphilis in Vienna in the Eighteen Hundred and Twenties (Bulletin Canadien d’Histoire de Medecine, 1986 Summer;3(1):51-64.)

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 longer version of this article will appear in a future edition of The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK

Whether or not to meticulously observe the exposition repeat in Schubert’s final sonata, the D960 in B-flat major, is a question which continues to trouble pianists, musicologists and listeners alike. The debate concerns aspects such as authenticity, personal taste, prevailing musical fashion, and timing. It has cropped up the press this autumn as British pianist Paul Lewis completes his cycle of Schubert’s sonatas, and has exercised myself, colleagues and other musical friends in discussion.

The opening bars of the first movement of Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major D960
The opening bars of the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960

When I first started learning the D960, the day my new piano arrived from Chappells in January 2007, I did not doubt the correctness of adhering to the score and repeating the exposition. Throughout my musical studies, I had been taught to trust the composer’s intentions, that composers know what they are doing, and that repeats are there for a reason.

In Baroque repertoire, sectional repeats are commonplace, often used to reinforce material and to offer soloist and/or ensemble the opportunity for some interesting extemporisation or ornamentation in the repeated material. At a recent harpsichord masterclass I attended at Handel’s House with some of my students and those of a teaching colleague, the harpsichordist, Claire Williams, encouraged students to experiment with different effects in repeats, such as using the upper manual of the harpsichord, or employing a lighter touch. Bach and his contemporaries would have expected and encouraged it.

In the piano sonatas of Mozart, for example, a repeat of the exposition in the first movement is often a reinforcing device, a reminder that this is a sonata, in Sonata Form (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation). And Mozart would have expected his keyboard player to offer some extemporisation – changes in dynamics, ornamentation and so forth – in a repeat. As musicologist, pianist and noted Mozart expert Robert Levin states:

“If you take a repeat, for instance, heaven forefend you should play exactly the same way you did before. It’s like telling somebody, ‘Look, if you could go back five years and relive your life would you change anything?’

Some people might say, ‘Nah, I think I basically did what I wanted to do,’ but a lot of people would say, ‘Oh boy. I can name you a dozen things that I would done differently.’ A piece of music is an almost cinematic opportunity to revisit a situation and reinterpret it.”

In a repeat of the exposition, the musical experience does not stay the same – there can never be a “straight repeat” because we are human and do not seek to replicate MIDI recordings – but the repeat of the same material helps the listener to assimilate the musical ideas expressed in the composition, and makes it easier to comprehend the structure of the piece.

In Schubert’s last sonatas, the repeat sign is written for an exceedingly long exposition, while the material of the exposition is repeated a third time in the recapitulation with little alteration. This has led some pianists to omit the exposition repeat in performance. But in the last Sonata (and, indeed in the penultimate Sonata, D959 in A), the first ending of the exposition contains unique material, leading the music back to the movement’s opening. If the music is performed without the repeat, this material is missed out completely as it does not appear in the second ending of the exposition (if one does not observe the repeat, one goes straight to the second time bar and thence to the development section). These bars contain striking material, which does not appear anywhere else in the piece, and is significantly different from the second ending. When the exposition ends a second time, Schubert introduces an extraordinary bridging section, three ethereal chords a single bar, which seem to come from somewhere else completely, and lead the music into darker, minor-key territory.

The first and second time bars at the end of the exposition
The first and second time bars at the end of the exposition

British-Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff feels that the omission of the exposition repeat is as “the amputation of a limb” (Schiff, “Schubert’s Piano Sonatas”), while Alfred Brendel declares the exposition repeats in the final two sonatas to be “unimportant”, that the transitional bars in the D960 are too unconnected to the rest of the movement, and that their omission actually contributes to the coherence of the piece. Brendel also states that “repeat marks must not be taken as orders to be automatically obeyed, as if the repeatable section were written out by the composer.” (“Schubert’s Last Sonatas: An Exchange”; Frisch and Brendel). But the last two sonatas have more than mere “repeat marks”: the bars of music specifically written out by the composer suggest that Schubert requires the repeat to be observed.

Personally, I have never doubted the inclusion of the exposition repeat, and it irritates me when I hear performances, either live or on disc, which omit it.

In reading reviews of live performances of Schubert’s last three sonatas, it strikes me that many pianists omit the exposition repeat/s simply to save time. Most concerts last around 90 minutes (plus interval); any longer and the audience starts to get restless, worrying about last trains etc. Critics, who praise the omission of the exposition repeat, are similarly impatient, presumably keen to get out of the Wigmore and into the pub before last orders! Played in its entirety, with all repeats intact (including in the third movement Scherzo), the D960 comes in at around 40 minutes.

Another issue which relates to this is the tempo of the first movement. It is marked Molto Moderato, and in some pianists’ hands (Richter), this can verge on Adagio! Moderato means “not rushing or dragging”, and Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a measured allegro. A quick glance through Spotify of recordings of this work reveals that most versions which include the repeat come in at around 20 minutes; Richter’s is 25 minutes, which is verging on self-indulgent, while Pollini’s is 18 minutes. At this length, the opening movement of the D960 is as long as an entire sonata by Haydn or Beethoven.

It is customary to programme Schubert’s last three sonatas together, just as Beethoven’s last three are, to stress the interrelations between the three. The D958 and D959 are played in the first half of a concert, and the D960 after the interval. It can feel like a long haul for the audience, and one of the solutions to this problem is to shorten the programme by omitting repeats, mainly those of the opening movements’ expositions. However, it irks me when I read reviews of pianists such as Paul Lewis (a protégé of Brendel), who is completing his survey of Schubert’s piano and lieder music with performances of the final three sonatas, in which critics praise the omission of the repeat without outlining at least a little of the background to this ongoing debate. I feel that without the exposition repeat the audience is cheated of the opportunity to experience Schubert’s compositional intent, and the drama, which comes from the tension between the contrasting harmonies in the exposition, and the transition between exposition and development, is lost.

To my mind, a well-played opening movement of the D960, with repeat, need not feel unnecessarily long. The music has an spaciousness (its key and scale always calls to mind, for me, a great river charting its final course towards the sea) which is offset by a considered interpretation of the Molto Moderato marking. I particularly like Pires and Uchida in this work. I have enjoyed all three sonatas in a single concert, or the D960 on its own, preceded by one of the D899 Impromptus in a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore (Andreas Haefliger – repeat omitted!). Both programmes work equally well.

Here is Maria Joao Pires

Maria João Pires – Schubert : Piano Sonata No.21 in B flat major D960 : I Molto moderato