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

 

 

 

Concert going is a social as well as a cultural activity and one of the great pleasures is the after-concert discussion with friends – and occasionally strangers who linger in the auditorium or foyer – keen to share their thoughts on what they’ve just heard. Sometimes a performance can be so profound, moving or thought-provoking that an immediate verbal response may be impossible, as we each privately digest and consider what we have just heard. At other times, the words tumble out eagerly as we rush to share our impressions of the event.

Last week I was back in London for a very special concert at Temple Church, part of a series hosted by Temple Music Foundation featuring pianist Julius Drake and friends. Here was Schubert’s heartrending song cycle Winterreise, a work written the year before he died which has been invested with all kinds of meaning and psychobabble by those who believe this painful narrative is an autobiography of sorts. Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager was singing this great work for the first time – and for me this was the first time I’d heard a female voice in the role of Schubert’s lonely winter traveller (I’ve now heard the work performed by tenor and baritone voices and also in an excellent English translation). Seated at the back of the church, it took awhile to tune one’s ear into the church’s acoustic, but once settled, it was clear to me that this was a performance of exceptional intensity, drama and emotion. I couldn’t see Kirschlager very easily from my seat, but her projection and commitment to the role was clear, her voice at times rough-edged and richly-hued to bring greater meaning and expression to the text and music.

Repairing afterwards with friends to a cosy pub on the Strand, we discussed what we had just heard over wine and beer (we also discussed the vessel from which my friend Adrian drank – was it a “tankard” or a “glass with a handle”? Such is the way when lively, inquisitive minds meet….!). While I enthused about the intensity and drama of the performance, my companions were rather more guarded, and this provoked a vigorous, but always friendly and considerate discussion. This was not some dry bar-by-bar analysis of the work and its performance, but thoughtful, heartfelt and immediate reactions by people who really care about music and concerts. It proved how meaningful, subjective and, above all, personal our experiences of music are.

It was a real treat to hear such an absorbing gig, then ‘share’ it there and then, as if the evening re-booted into 2 great nights in 1 – Adrian (@adrian_specs)

Never before has a performance led to a spirited, respectful and absorbing conversation. Something that deepened my understanding about a work and a performer – Jon (@thoroughlygood)

As a writer and reviewer, I find such conversations can crystallise or adjust one’s thoughts about a concert, the works performed and the performers, offering valuable reflection or reappraisal ahead of a review or article being written. It’s also a healthy reminder that we do not all like or appreciate the same things – and thank goodness for that, for these differences make the concert-going experience far more rewarding and interesting.


Adrian’s review of the concert at Temple Church will be published on this site shortly.

 

Schubert’s Winterreise, published in 1828, the year of the composer’s death at the age of 31, is often described as the greatest song-cycle ever written, and its central themes and preoccupations – love and loss, life and death – resonate through the centuries and continue to have a deeply emotional and philosophical impact today.
German composer Hans Zender’s ‘Winterreise’ is not a transcription of Schubert’s original for small orchestra. It is a “composed interpretation”, a work in its own right, which reflects and refracts the original song-cycle. Its orchestration takes the listener from Schubert’s Vienna, through Mahler and Schoenberg to the cabaret of Weimar Berlin and Kurt Weil. In this way, it challenges received notions of authenticity, historical accuracy and interpretation, and the relationship between performer, composer and audience. If anything, Zender’s Winterreise is even bleaker than Schubert’s with its strong Expressionist flavour and rich sonic associations with contemporary repertoire and instrumentation.

(photo: Hugo Glendinning)

In this production at London’s Barbican Theatre, the music and its narrative are staged by director, designer and video artist Netia Jones using striking black-and-white film, projections, haunting shadows, and chiaroscuro. The video screen is slashed into jagged shards, like a broken mirror, onto which are projected images of frost, a river, bare branches, a lonely snowy landscape through which a solitary figure, Schubert’s tragic “fremdling”, trudges.

Read my full review here 

I’ve been playing and listening to Schubert’s  Opus 90 Impromptus since I was about 14, when my mother fell in love with Brendel playing the fourth of the set, in A flat, and insisted that I learn it. So, armed with a Peters edition of the score, I set off to my teacher’s house on my bicycle and made a fair attempt at wrecking Schubert’s sublime, ethereal semiquavers. In retrospective, Schubert’s late piano works are perhaps not best tackled by a precocious teenager. These are works born out of the tumult of Winterreise, and, in my humble opinion, are best tackled by a musician who has lived with the music, and the composer (albeit deceased), for a long time. Sure, one can process the notes, but these works are imbued with profound, complex and mixed emotions, and only a hefty degree of ‘life experience’ can truly inform one’s playing and interpretation of this music.

Schubert famously and tragically died young, at 31, possibly from complications arising from syphilis, yet in his short life he, like Mozart, and Chopin, and Mendelssohn, produced a phenomenal amount of work, not all of it complete, much of it sublimely beautiful, absorbing and endlessly fascinating. And so, one can say that the music which came post-Winterreise – the late piano sonatas, the two sets of Impromptus, the D946 Klavierstucke – are most certainly “mature” works.

I learnt the E flat Impromptu (no.2) properly for my ATCL Diploma. My teacher cautioned me against learning, or rather re-learning something I had learnt in my teens, as despite the distance of many years, old mistakes would surely remain. So, my strategy for studying this piece some 30 years since I first encountered it, was to treat it as a completely new venture. I threw out my dog-eared Edition Peters score and purchased a new Henle edition. Of course, the fingers do remember what they learnt before, and in one or two places, I felt them straying into the forbidden territory of bad habits and sloppy or clumsy passage work, but, on the whole, I managed to avoid such errors, mainly by practising the less certain measures very slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. This technique was been particularly helpful for the trio section, which, in the past, I had a tendency to gallop through, over-emphasising the fortissimos and sforzandos, and not paying enough close attention to the melodic line which is still evident, despite the anger and torment. This ‘Chopinesque’ treatment has revealed some really beautiful moments – I always knew they were there, but allowing myself time to hear and consider them has enabled me to shape the music in a different way.

The Opus 90 Impromptus are often performed as a set, though sometimes a single one will be offered in a programme, or as an encore (Schubert himself told his publishers that the works could be issued singly or in a set), and the four pieces do present a kind of journey (‘Reise’), both musical and metaphorical, when considered together. Much has been written on the connections between the works, and it is easy to drown in a sea of complex musical analysis and confusing hypothetical debate as to whether the pieces share connections and organised structures. Indeed, Schumann made the somewhat muddled assertion that the second set, the Opus 142, is a sonata “in disguise”.

The first of the Opus 90, in C minor, opens with a bare, arresting G octave, and the ensuing lonely dotted melody sets the tone of the whole piece. In one recording I have, the work freezes, calling to mind the exiled fremdling (traveller) of songs such as ‘Gute Nacht’, from Winterreise. The chill never really thaws as the music continually struggles to break free of that portentous, restraining G: it never truly succeeds, despite the lyrical and nostalgic A-flat sections. The warm, major key offers little real solace, as the harmonic progressions constantly drag the ear away from the resolution it craves, and any pleasant recollections are quickly forgotten by the return of the chilling tread of the opening motif, the tyranny of the G, and a horrifying attempt to finally break free.

The E-flat Impromptu suggests an etude, with its swirling, tumbling triplets, which need careful articulation to sound dancing, fluid and limpid. The opening scalic melody, repeated not once but twice, reflects the composer’s ongoing crisis, the fremdling’s agonised progress, and despite its serpentine coiling, its attempts to slip away, remains firmly tethered by an insistent, repetitive bass line.

The streaming, scalic figures of the opening require wrist flexibility and suppleness, the wrist acting as a shock absorber to help shape the phrasing here. While the music is marked ‘Allegro’, there needs to be some give-and-take within the phrases, signaling shifts in mood and tone. There are measures of great charm and true Schubertian “prettiness”, but these are quickly offset by the darker, minor sections. The longer melodic lines must be shaped and preserved at all times: despite the tempo, this is not a moto perpetuo exercise in the manner of Czerny! It is an Impromptu, and by its very name it suggests romanticism rather than rigour.

As the RH ascends high into the upper registers, marked forte, the tone grows more hysterical and desperate, before the music descends to an angry, accented section, preparation for the drama and anguish of the Trio. Here, the 3/4 time signature suggests a rough, bohemian waltz, with a figure of widely-spaced bare octaves, and stamping off-beat accented triplets, alternating with a division of the beat into quavers, a stark contrast to the flowing triplets of the earlier sections. There are some moments of great melodic beauty and poignancy here, but the roughness and tension is never really smoothed, while a sobbing, repeated triplet figure acts as a bridge, leading us back to the opening material. The pieces ends, emphatically, in the minor key, signalling once again the confusion of Schubert’s lonely traveller.

The third Impromptu, in G-flat major, is probably the best-loved of the set, with its serene, nocturne-like melody, redolent of Schubert’s Ave Maria, and its fluttering harp-like broken chords, which soothe after the torment of the previous piece. There are storms – bass trills, and a shadowy, frequently-modulating middle section – before the music returns to the same flowing calmness of the opening.

And so to my favourite, the No. 4, in A-flat, and here at last all the uncertain tonalities of the preceding movements find a home. This is not prefigured at the outset, rather the protagonist, the meandering fremdling of these four pieces, must strive for eventual and gradual disclosure: the piece opens in A-flat minor, though it is written in the major, with accidentals, and the harmonic ambiguity lingers until bar 31, when the graceful, cascading semiquaver figure is at last heard in A-flat major, beneath which the left hand has a fragile, ‘cello-like melody. At the centre of the piece is a lyrical trio reminscent of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ fantasy, after which the sense of alienation and tension from the earlier pieces is swept aside by the gradual acceleration of all the elements and the home key, A flat, becomes fully dominant, while a life-affirming dance-like figure takes over in the bass. The final cadence is an emphatic A-flat major descent and two forceful closing chords. Home at last.

It may be fanciful to assign such complex musical and thematic considerations to these pieces, but play them, or hear them, as a set, and I think the sense of a journey, and its eventual completion is evident, if only in the progressive tonalities of each piece. In any event, these are poetic, timeless, and very personal works, which display a gravity and intensity far beyond the typical nineteenth-century drawing room Albumblatt or klavierstück.

Further reading:

Fisk, Charles – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Intepretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas. University of California Press. 2001

Daverio, John – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Oxford University Press, USA. 2008

Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake (piano) – from the film of Winterreise by David Alden