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Hyperion Records

CDA67091/2 - Schubert: Impromptus & other piano music
A River Landscape by Jean-Pierre François Lamorinière (1828-1911)
Fine Art Photographic Library

Recording details: Various dates
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: May 1996
DISCID: B411D60B 670F2207
Total duration: 139 minutes 26 seconds

'On these two CDs you hear two hours and 20 minutes of the most wonderful piano music anyone has ever written. A great deal of it is played with almost ideal intelligence and power' (Classic CD)

'Una interpretación a nivel altísimo. Muy ben sonido' (CD Compact, Spain)

Impromptus & other piano music
C major  [6'33]
A flat major  [7'02]
F minor  [1'35]
C sharp minor  [4'00]
F minor  [1'21]
A flat major  [9'19]
E flat minor  [11'38]
E flat major  [10'44]
C major  [6'39]

This set brings together all of Schubert's most important piano works other than the Sonatas. The 'Wanderer' Fantasy is the composer's most overtly virtuosic work and was one of the first to bring him fame. Its structure, based on the transformation of a single them, had a seminal influence on the Romantic movement and, in particular, Liszt.

The two sets of Impromptus, along with the six Moments Musicaux and the Drei Klavierstücke, are consummate examples of Schubert's skill as a miniaturist and yet their breadth of vision is such that Schumann regarded the second set of Impromptus as a 'Sonata in disguise'.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Throughout his life Schubert was fascinated by the challenge of welding the various movements of a traditional symphonic form into a continuous, unified whole. His earliest surviving composition, written at the age of thirteen, is a Fantasy in G major for piano duet; and in the final year of his life came the last, and in many ways the most perfect, of his pieces of the kind — the Fantasy in F minor, D940. Between these two piano-duet works came two fantasies in Schubert’s grandest C major manner: the ‘Wanderer’ for solo piano, D760, and – barely a month before the F minor duet Fantasy – the Fantasy for violin and piano, D934.

The influence behind all these works was that of Beethoven – not only the two Piano Sonatas ‘Quasi una fantasia’, Op 27, the first of which is his only work of the kind to play continuously from start to finish, but also such cyclic late works as the Piano Sonata, Op 101, and the C major Cello Sonata, Op 102 No 1. The initial stages of Schubert’s Violin Fantasy, with its slow opening section followed by a sonata Allegro set not in the home key but in the relative minor, are clearly modelled on the last-mentioned of those Beethoven works. Schubert’s next section, however, is an elaborate set of variations on his famous setting of Rückert’s ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’, before the subsequent return of the work’s slow opening idea again hints at the influence of the Beethoven. If the reprise of the song theme immediately before the Fantasy’s final peroration is a somewhat self-conscious gesture, it at least shows Schubert’s overriding concern to unify his structure.

Such unity had been much more rigorously applied in the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, and it would be difficult to overestimate the influence the ‘Wanderer’ exerted on succeeding generations of composers. Liszt, who made his own highly skilful transcription of the work for piano and orchestra, was inspired by Schubert’s example to write his great Sonata in B minor; and the nature of Schubert’s Scherzo, as a skittish parody on the work’s imperious main theme, is one whose echo can be heard in the ‘Mephistopheles’ third movement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Unified one-movement structures similar to those of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy continued to make their mark until well into the twentieth century – not least, in the early works of Schoenberg.

Everything in the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, including the song fragment used in its slow second section, clearly derives from the dactylic repeated-note rhythm of its opening bar. The second subject of Schubert’s opening section unfolds in the key of E major – an idea that clearly echoes the plan of another C major work, Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, whose far-flung keyboard gestures also left their mark on the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. From this second subject Schubert later derives a third theme – a long-spun melody which, in turn, is to generate the material for the Scherzo’s trio section. Small wonder the work’s first publishers, Cappi & Diabelli, were at pains to stress the originality and inventiveness of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy’s form in the advertisement they placed in the Wiener Zeitung of 24 February 1823:

The Fantasy has always been acknowledged as the type of composition in which the art of the composer, freed from the chains of form, can most clearly display itself and prove its worth. Herr Schubert has confirmed his mastery in this newest work, in which he shows that he not only possesses the gift of invention, but also understands how to develop his auspicious themes in the furtherance of art. The present Fantasy is worthy of comparison with the similar works of the foremost composers, and thus from every point of view deserves the attention of all artists and art-lovers.

The dactylic rhythm running through the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is one that seems to have haunted Schubert for many years: among the many appearances elsewhere in his music, it permeates the song Der Tod und das Mädchen, the well-known Entr’acte from the ballet music to Rosamunde (and hence the related slow movement of the great A minor String Quartet, D804), and the B flat major variations from the second set of Impromptus. It is not unlikely that the origin of Schubert’s obsession is to be traced back to the fatalistic rhythm of the Allegretto second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

While the C major Violin Fantasy takes an easy-going song melody as the basis for its central variations, the ‘Wanderer’ borrows not so much a song-theme as a song-fragment. Its slow middle movement is based on an eight-bar passage that appears at the centre of Schubert’s setting of Der Wanderer, to a text by the obscure Georg Philipp Schmidt ‘von Lübeck’. Schubert was not yet twenty at the time he composed the song, but he seems to have remembered it for the remainder of his life: his final instrumental work, the Piano Sonata, D960, unmistakably quotes its opening bars during the central development of its first movement. The text that accompanies the passage Schubert appropriated for the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is worth quoting:

Die Sonne dünkt mich hier so kalt
die Blüte welk, das Leben alt,
Und was sie reden, leerer Schall,
ich bin ein Fremdling überall.
Here the sun seems so cold,
the flowers faded, life old;
and what they say with an empty sound,
I am a stranger everywhere.

It was at the time he wrote the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, in the autumn of 1822, that Schubert first felt the serious symptoms of syphilis, and by the following spring he was too weak to leave the house. Since his other large-scale composition of the period was the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, it might be thought that the two works were a reflection of his state of mind – were it not for the fact that such a view is flatly contradicted by the triumphant tone of the Fantasy’s outer sections.

What is remarkable is that the quotation from Der Wanderer – and hence the entire second section of the Fantasy – retains the song’s key of C sharp minor. The resulting juxtaposition of keys a semitone apart is a highly unusual one, though it is also to be found in Schubert’s F minor duet Fantasy, where both the slow movement and the Scherzo are in F sharp minor. Such a key-scheme would have been unthinkable to Mozart; and even in Beethoven there is no more than a single instance – the C sharp minor String Quartet, Op 131, with its second movement in D major. All the same, both Beethoven and Schubert were surpassed in boldness by the intrepid Haydn: while they bridged the gap by means of a modulation, or at least a thematic link, Haydn’s last E flat Piano Sonata (Hob52) brazenly has its self-contained middle movement in E major.

The slow second section of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is no straightforward set of variations – its theme is too short for that – but a continuously developmental piece which incorporates at its centre a chain of variations on its song-fragment, in which the changes from minor to major serve only to heighten the music’s poignancy. The forceful climax of this section provides an anticipation of the type of violent eruption that was to figure with increasing frequency in Schubert’s later slow movements. Even so, of his subsequent piano works only the Andantino second movement of the A major Sonata D959 was to contain an outburst of comparable vehemence.

Scarcely less forceful is the piano writing in the Fantasy’s outer sections. Schumann aptly noted in his diary that ‘Schubert wanted to combine an entire orchestra in two hands, and the inspired beginning is a seraphic hymn in praise of the Deity’. Schubert’s orchestrally-inclined textures were to influence the piano writing not only of Schumann, but also of Liszt and Brahms, and it is difficult to imagine many pianists of Schubert’s day managing to master their virtuoso demands. They seem to have been beyond Schubert’s own considerable abilities: reliable legend has it that he broke down while playing the concluding fugue, and leapt up from the piano stool crying “Let the devil play the stuff!”

Moments musicaux, D780
While the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy was hardly written with amateur performance in mind, Schubert’s series of shorter piano pieces, most of them composed towards the end of his life, certainly were. The six Moments musicaux were written at various times between 1823 and 1828. The earliest of them – and ever since, one of Schubert’s most popular piano pieces – is No 3, which first appeared, described as an ‘Air russe’, in an album of Christmas and New Year music issued in December 1823. Besides Schubert’s piece, the album included a new cavatina by Rossini, a cotillon by Count Gallenberg (the husband of Countess Guicciardi, to whom Beethoven dedicated his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata), and a Plaisanterie sur des Thèmes originaux espagnols by one Auguste Louis.

The success of this album prompted the publishers to issue a second collection the following year. This time, the purchaser was regaled with vignettes of scenes from Weber’s Der Freischütz, as well as two further contributions from Schubert: the song Die Erscheinung (later known under the title of Erinnerung), which had been composed as early as July 1815, and a new piano piece called Les Plaintes d’un Troubadour. The latter, a simple Allegretto with trio, replete with characteristically Schubertian enharmonic changes, eventually became No 6 of the Moments musicaux. The fanciful title under which it first appeared was, needless to say, simply a publisher’s sales pitch.

The remaining four of Schubert’s pieces were probably composed in the autumn of 1827. The complete collection was issued the following year, in two volumes each bearing a title page describing the contents, in pidgin-French, as Momens musicals. The pieces Schubert added in 1827 are generally more complex and more emotionally ambiguous than the two he had previously composed. The ‘yodelling’ theme of the opening C major piece eventually gives way to a smoother, more lyrical middle section; but both are tinged with Schubert’s characteristic swings between major and minor. No 2 alternates its gentle opening theme with a melancholy barcarolle, each being subtly varied on subsequent reappearances. The stark two-part texture of the outer sections in the C sharp minor fourth piece stands in strong contrast to the lilting dance-like middle section in the major. This gently syncopated middle section is played pianissimo almost throughout, though Schubert nevertheless manages to incorporate a reminiscence of it in the coda in the form of a haunting echo, as if a tiny snatch of the dance were being heard through closed doors.

No 5 is the only genuinely quick piece in the collection; and with its awkward leaps for the two hands in opposite directions, perhaps also technically the most demanding of them. Its driving dactylic rhythm scarcely lets up for an instant, and there is no room this time for a consolatory middle section. The abrupt style of this penultimate piece stands in the strongest possible contrast to the yearning expressiveness of the concluding minuet and trio.

The Impromptus
Also from 1827 are Schubert’s two sets of Impromptus, the first of them composed between the two halves of Winterreise. The title ‘Impromptu’ was not initially Schubert’s own: it was the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger who labelled the first two pieces from D899 as such when he issued them in December 1827. (The remaining pair of pieces from this set did not appear for a further thirty years, when Haslinger’s son Carl published them, transposing No 3 from G flat major into the less ‘awkward’ key of G major – a gross misrepresentation which remained in widespread use for more than a hundred years.) Haslinger may perhaps have been prompted by the Impromptus of the Bohemian composer Jan Václav Vorísek which had become popular in the early 1820s. One of Vorísek’s Impromptus – an individually-published piece in B flat major – is in a rapid constant motion not dissimilar to that of Schubert’s second Impromptu. Schubert almost certainly knew Vorísek’s Impromptus, and was happy enough to use the same title when he composed his second set, which he offered to Schott & Co in February 1828, as ‘Four Impromptus which can appear singly or all four together’. Once again, however, there was a delay in publication, and this second set did not appear in print until 1839, when Anton Diabelli issued it with a dedication to Liszt.

The first of the D899 Impromptus has the breadth of a Schubertian sonata movement, though it is not in fact in sonata form. The entire piece grows out of the unaccompanied march-like melody with which it begins. The stark march rhythm eventually gives way to a new version of the same theme over a smoothly rippling accompaniment; and by a stroke of genius Schubert expands the tiny turn-like closing phrase of this section into a floating melody, before getting down to the business of developing the main subject in earnest.

The second Impromptu, in E flat major, contrasts its rapidly flowing outer sections with an explosive middle section in the key of B minor. The coda juxtaposes the same two tonalities in an attempt to reconcile them; but since it is dominated throughout by the material of the dramatic middle section, Schubert takes the bold and highly unorthodox step of allowing the piece to come to a violent close in the minor. The effect was not lost on Brahms, whose last piano piece, the Rhapsody, Op 119 No 4, in the same key of E flat major, also reaches a despairing conclusion in the minor.

Carl Haslinger’s insensitivity in transposing the third Impromptu up a semitone into G major is thrown into greater relief when Nos 2 and 3 are played, as they should be, in succession: G flat is the relative major of E flat minor, the key in which the preceding piece comes to rest, and this song without words can thus be heard, at least in part, as a resolution of that uneasy conclusion.

While the second Impromptu had progressed from the airy major to the dark minor, the final piece of the set undergoes the reverse process. It takes a full thirty bars before its rippling minor-mode beginning is transformed into the major; and a further sixteen before the music’s latent melody at last emerges in the left hand. As for the trio section, with its pulsating accompaniment, it consists of a single long-spun theme of aching expressiveness.

There is some irony in Schumann’s well-known view that the second set of Impromptus, D935, was really a sonata in disguise, since two of Schubert’s genuine piano sonatas were long misconstrued as collections of disparate pieces: the Sonata in E major, D459, was posthumously published as Fünf Klavierstücke, while the G major Sonata, D894, had been issued (Haslinger again!) under the title Fantasie, Andante, Menuetto und Allegretto. True, the first and last of the Impromptus are in the same key of F minor, but neither is in sonata form; and while Beethoven could write a four-movement sonata entirely bereft of sonata form (Op 26), this was hardly a characteristic procedure for Schubert.

Schubert’s opening piece is on a broad scale and contains a wealth of inspired material. The jagged opening theme is followed by a passage of gently rippling semiquavers whose thematic outline eventually gives rise to a wonderful melody in repeated chords. There is also a contrasting episode involving much crossing of the hands. Despite the fact that it unfolds for the most part at the pianissimo level, Schubert clearly wanted this episode played with peculiar intensity: the marking of ‘appassionato’ for such intimate music is typical, and it is one that appears again in a similar context in the slow movement of the great E flat Piano Trio, D929, and the Notturno for piano trio, D897.

The second of the D935 Impromptus is similar in mood and form to the last of the Moments musicaux, in the same key of A flat, while the third is a famous set of variations on a theme Schubert borrowed from his incidental music to Rosamunde. Of the five variations, the third is in the minor, and in an atmosphere of barely suppressed agitation, while the fourth broadens the tonal horizons of the piece by moving into the warmth of G flat major. The final variation is a delicate display piece, but Schubert characteristically brings the proceedings to an end with a coda that is at once slower and more simple than the original theme itself.

There is a decidedly Hungarian flavour to the last Impromptu, not only in its strong off-beat accents, but also in the improvisatory flourishes which seem to conjure up the sound of the cimbalom. The middle section, too, is not without its rushing scales, and there is a coda in which the music gathers pace, eventually coming to an end with a scale sweeping down over the entire compass of the keyboard.

Drei Klavierstücke, D946
The three pieces of D946 were composed in May 1828 and were the last piano works Schubert wrote before embarking on his final group of three sonatas. Schubert’s autograph lacks the final touches he gave his music when preparing it for publication; nor do we know if he intended the pieces to form a coherent group, along the lines of the two sets of Impromptus. At any rate, Brahms, who first edited them for publication in 1868, gave them the neutral title of Drei Klavierstücke.

The first piece, in E flat minor, is breathlessly agitated, though its B major middle section unfolds a broad melody that stands in violent contrast. Schubert initially designed the piece as a five-part form, including a second slow episode. Although he eventually deleted this second episode, it is fully worked-out and clearly legible in the autograph, and it has been included in the present recording. The resulting five-part structure is one that is also found in the second panel of the triptych.; this second piece has a main section in the style of a barcarolle, and two fine episodes in the minor, the second of which brings with it a change of metre (though not of pulse). The set ends with an Allegro in Schubert’s jubilant C major style. Here, too, there is a central episode in a contrasting metre. Its tempo relationship with the outer sections is less clear, though Schubert no doubt wanted this chorale-like passage to form a moment of calm between the flamboyant material that surrounds it.

Misha Donat © 1996

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