In December I performed for the first time the last three Schubert Sonatas in one concert. I was looking forward to this event for years and I am thankful to Stefano Lania in Bergamo who insisted for having this project in his concert series. It is a rare and special pleasure when an organizer encourages artists to realize something they otherwise would not often get the possibility for.
Years ago, when I first played the a major sonata for Alfred Brendel, he immediately animated me to perform these three masterworks in a single concert. He referred to them as a Kantian triad: A thesis of destructive and macabre energy in the c minor sonata, followed by an antithesis of positive activity in the a major is concluded by a synthesis of resigned sobriety in the last sonata. Schubert´s last sonatas belong together.
The C minor Sonata is indeed a work with a high degree of turbulence, the writing sometimes being neurotic: Behind a classical surface the music reveals a high degree of unexpected turns: the main earnest and tragic character – derived at least in my eyes from the opening bars of Beethoven´s c minor variations – balances with sudden, rapid and conflicting shifts of moods. For istance, the dreamy second subject is developped into a most passionate idea which dissolves into a pensive final group. The devolpment which follows has an illusive, almost funeral mood. The finale, in tarantella rhythm reminds me of the spirit of a danse macabre.
The second Sonata is in general the most luminous among the triad. Between the outer mouvements which bring a clear fiery and powerful (e.g. the starting chordal progression) and joyful (mostly in the finale) message we find the emotional heart of the piece right in the middle: the andantino starts in a grace or dance-like manner and slowly becomes a composition with a high degree of disturbance. The middle section sounds like a most scary scene. Until today I have not found a passage written until 1828 which appears to be so modern. The reprise of the main theme doesn´t remain unaffected by the outbursts: signs of disturbance can still be found in the shaking outer voices.
The last Sonata is in my eyes the most moving one. As Claudio Arrau put it D960 “is a work written in the proximity of death…one feels it from the very first theme…the breaking off, and the silence after a long, mysterious trill in the bass.” Only in the finale we find stormy passages, which are preceded – as Alfred Brendel pointed out – by the kind of silence that anticipates storms. The apparently smooth harmonic structure of this sonata is in fact more complex than in the others. I tried for many hours to give a sense to my analysis of the piece. Finally the suggestions of US musicologist William Rothstein helped me to decrypth the piece.
D958, 959 and 960 were written in 1828, however they were only published by Anton Diabelli around ten years after Schubert´s death. However, they were almost forgotten until the centennial anniverary of his death. Thanks to the writings of Sir Donald Francis Tovey and public performances and recordings of Arthur Schnabel they slowly received growing attention around 1930. I´m really astonished at how long it took until they finally became an important part of the repertoire. Historically, their public reception didn’t start in the easiest way: Schumann reviewed them in 1838 and showed his disappointment. The main criticism – still persisting today – is that of being too long, lacking in formal conciseness and in pianistic fireworks; hence not appropriate for an effective performance. According to contemporary witnesses, Schubert was not a virtuoso pianist in the style of Liszt. His piano playing was more on the introverted side: the main praise he received was for his singing tone. In one of his letters he writes angrily about the banging style of some virtuosos of the time. This aspect fascinates me the most; it is in the subtle tone colours that one gives sense to all tonal excursions, like the seemingly endless modulations in the development sections.
The journey I started in 2008 led me through three of the most sublime piano pieces I ever encountered. A very big challenge for the performer is to shift continuosly between song-like writing (the resemblance with many aspects of “Der Atlas” in D958, “im Frühling” in D959 and “Am Meer” the opening of D960 is quite obvious) and the dramatic, drastic, fieverish texture he interpolates. Even more so, when these moments are hidden behind a smooth or innocent surface. I’m thinking in particular of the beginnings from the slow movements of the c minor and a major sonatas. Another important challenge is to find a way how to integrate the dance like episodes or mouvements into the principal character of each piece.
Two recordings have been central to my study of these sonatas: Brendel´s live rendition of D960 from 1997 (for copyright reasons not available on Youtube) and Schnabel’s 1937 recording of D959.