Andantino varié in B minor [9'13]
Fugue in E minor D952 [3'30]
Rondo in A major D951 [11'56]
Fantasie in F minor D940 [18'18]
Schubert is unusual and indeed unique among composers in that some of his greatest works are written for piano duet. He wrote as much music for duet as for solo piano, and reaches emotional depths which take this repertoire far away from its domestic origins. The most celebrated of these pieces, the Fantasie in F minor, with its austere yet heartbreaking opening melody and dramatic double fugue, is one of the great piano achievements of the early 19th century. The rest of the works on this disc are much less well known but equally fascinating.
Who better to commit these works to disc than two of the brightest stars in the British piano scene, Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne? As well as their individual achievements, they also have a long-standing friendship and performing relationship which you will hear reflected in their magisterial performances on this marvellous disc.
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Schubert is unique among great composers in having written almost as much piano music for four hands as for two. Piano duetting was a popular pastime in his day, and the prospects for having such pieces published were far healthier than they were for solo piano music, particularly when it came to works of the ambitious scope Schubert wanted to write. Several of his most significant four-hands works had their origins in his two protracted visits to Hungary, where he was employed as music-master to the daughters of Count Esterházy von Galánta at his summer residence in Zseliz (now Zveliezovce, in Slovakia). When Schubert first went there, in 1818, the younger countess, Karoline, was a girl of thirteen, but when he returned six years later she had blossomed into a young woman, and by all accounts he fell deeply in love with her. Schubert may have intended the piano duets he composed at Zseliz for his two pupils to play together, or he may have taken one of the parts himself, thereby from time to time allowing himself a degree of intimacy with Karoline. In all likelihood, the players would have assumed the primo and secondo parts by turns—as, indeed, do Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis on the present recording.
One of the four-hands works Schubert composed during his first visit to Hungary was a set of variations in E minor on a French song (D624). It was his first piano duet to appear in print, and its title-page bore a dedication to Beethoven. Schubert returned to the key of E minor, and to ostensibly French sources, for a larger work which he may have composed during his 1824 stay in Zseliz. The piece had a somewhat chequered publication history: its first movement was issued in the summer of 1826, under the grandiose title of Divertissement en Forme d’une Marche brillante et raisonée pour le pianoforte à quatre mains composé sur des motifs origineaux [sic!] Français par François Schubert. The remaining two movements appeared the following year, under a different opus number, as an Andantino varié and Rondeau brillant. In dividing the work into two halves the publisher no doubt hoped to increase his sales revenue, but also to disguise the nature of what Schubert must have intended as a large-scale sonata in three movements. Just how unfashionable such serious fare was can be seen from the fate of Schubert’s great Piano Sonata in G major D894, of 1826: although the word ‘Sonata’ was prominently displayed on the title-page of his manuscript, it did not figure at all in the first edition, which marketed the work instead as though it consisted of four disparate pieces.
In the case of the so-called Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français D823, the adjective ‘raisonée’ in connection with the opening movement was the publisher’s only hint that the piece was a rigorously argued sonata allegro. The work is seldom played in its complete form, but its slow movement, the Andantino varié in B minor, has achieved the status of a self-contained item—understandably so, since it is one of the most perfect and beautiful of all Schubert’s duets. The inspiration behind it is likely to have been Mozart’s piano duet Variations in G major K501, which have a similar chamber-music intimacy, and in which—as in Schubert’s piece—the theme returns in all its original simplicity to round the music off. Among Schubert’s variations, the second, with its toy-trumpet fanfares, has a Mendelssohnian lightness and transparency; while the third presents a continuous pattern of semiquavers in seemingly effortless counterpoint between the players’ right hands. In the deeply expressive final variation the tempo slows, and the music undergoes a sea-change into the radiant key of B major. Rather than offer a literal repeat of each half of the theme, as in the first three variations, Schubert now presents elaborately ornamented quasi-repeats, so that this is in effect two variations rolled into one. From here, the music dissolves into an abbreviated reprise of the original theme, its unadorned nature highlighted by the intricacy of the music that has preceded it.
On a larger scale are the Variations in A flat major, D813. They were composed in Zseliz in the summer of 1824, around the same time as the most ambitious of all Schubert’s piano duets, the Grand Duo D812. Reporting from Zseliz to his artist friend Moritz von Schwind, Schubert told him that the new variations had been greeted with particular applause there. ‘But as I don’t quite trust the Hungarians’ taste’, Schubert added, ‘I shall leave it to you and the Viennese to decide about them.’
Schubert’s variation theme is a march whose salient features are an unexpected turn to C minor at the end of its first half, and the canonic imitation of the melodic line at the start of the second half. Both these characteristics leave a mark on the eight variations that follow. The third of them transforms the theme’s march rhythm into Schubert’s favoured dactylic pattern (one long note followed by two short), with the melody given out in contrapuntal dialogue by the primo player, while the secondo has a pulsating inner voice and a delicate pizzicato bass-line. The same rhythm pervades Variation 5—a melancholy and deeply expressive piece in the minor (the turn to the minor at the close of the original theme’s first half is now replaced with a corresponding change to the major); but even more haunting is the penultimate variation, whose chromatic harmonies convey an infinite sense of longing. This time the music turns not to C minor at the end of the first half, but to C major, in a passionate outburst of overwhelming effect. The extended final variation brings with it a change in metre that allows the work to come to a brilliant conclusion.
The remaining pieces recorded here were all composed in the last year of Schubert’s tragically short life. The Allegro in A minor, D947 and the Rondo in A major, D951 were written in May and June 1828 respectively, and may well have been intended to form a two-movement sonata along the lines of Beethoven’s E minor Sonata Op 90. Schubert’s rondo is lovingly modelled on the lyrical finale of Beethoven’s sonata: his theme follows a similar harmonic pattern, and even the keyboard layout of its opening bars, with the melody’s initial phrase followed by a more assertive answer in octaves, echoes Beethoven’s. Schubert mirrors Beethoven’s procedure, too, by transferring the final reprise of the rondo theme to the sonorous tenor register, with a continuous pattern of semiquavers unfolding above it. But Schubert’s piece is far from a slavish imitation, and it can more than hold its own against Beethoven’s. Particularly beautiful is the manner in which one of the important subsidiary themes returns towards the end, surmounted by a shimmering pianissimo accompaniment in repeated chords from the primo player.
The A major Rondo was published in December 1828, less than a month after Schubert died, but its A minor companion-piece did not see the light of day until 1840, when Anton Diabelli issued it under the heading of Lebensstürme (‘The storms of life’)—a catchpenny title that belittles the stature of what is one of Schubert’s most imposing sonata movements. Its turbulent opening pages meet their obverse side in the serenity of a second subject given out in the manner of a distant chorale which leaves any notion of storms far behind. The piece as a whole is one that makes dramatic use of abrupt silences—nowhere more startlingly so than at the end of its first stage, where the music breaks off in mid-stream, only to be followed by an unceremonious plunge into a wholly unexpected key for the start of the central development section. The development is entirely based on the opening subject, which is transformed in its closing moments into a delicately tripping passage that throws the explosive start of the recapitulation into relief.
The origins of the Fugue in E minor, D952 were recounted by Schubert’s composer friend Franz Lachner:
In the year 1828, on 3 June, Schubert and I were invited by the editor of the Modezeitung [Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, Literatur, Theater und Mode], Herr [Johann] Schikh, for a country outing to Baden, near Vienna. In the evening Schikh said to us: ‘Tomorrow morning we shall go to Heiligenkreuz, to hear the famous organ there. Perhaps you could both compose a small piece and perform it there?’ Schubert suggested the composition of a four-hands fugue, which was completed by both parties towards midnight. On the next day, at 6 in the morning, we travelled to Heiligenkreuz, where both fugues were performed in the presence of several monks.
Schubert, who was about to embark on the composition of his Mass in E flat major, D950, was much preoccupied with fugal writing during the final months of his life, and he subsequently used the same fugue-subject for an exercise in counterpoint which he prepared in the hope of receiving instruction from the renowned theoretician Simon Sechter. Although Schubert’s fugue is laid out for four hands, the presence during its closing stages of a long-sustained pedal-note in the bass indicates that he had the sound of the Heiligenkreuz organ in mind.
Throughout his life, Schubert was fascinated by the challenge of welding the various movements of a sonata into a continuous and unified whole—much as Beethoven had done in the first of his two piano sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’, Op 27. Schubert’s earliest surviving composition, written at the age of thirteen, is a Fantasie for piano duet; and the famous piano duet Fantasie in F minor, D940, composed in the early months of 1828, was preceded by two important works of a similar kind, both in C major: the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for piano solo, D760, where virtually everything arises out of the repeated-note dactylic rhythm of the song-fragment that forms the basis of its slow second section; and the Fantasy for violin and piano, D934, which also makes use of a pre-existing song.
Behind the Fantasie in F minor, D940, lurks the shadow not so much of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 27 No 1, as of Mozart’s F minor Fantasia K608—a piece written for a mechanical organ, but which circulated widely, as it still does today, in the form of a piano duet. Like Mozart’s, the final section of Schubert’s Fantasie incorporates a fugue (Mozart’s fugue is actually a contrapuntally intensified reprise of a passage from his first section); but no less significant is the presence in Mozart’s opening Allegro of a hair-raising excursion into the distant key of F sharp minor. Schubert treats the same startling harmonic shift on a vastly expanded scale, setting both middle sections of his Fantasie in F sharp minor. Moreover, just as the two outer sections of his piece are related to each other, so too, in a more subtle fashion, are the slow movement and scherzo, with the harmonic progression traced by the Largo’s grandiose opening bars returning in an accelerated form to underpin the scherzo’s theme.
The Fantasie’s opening melody, with its expressive agogic appoggiaturas, is a not-so-distant cousin of the theme from the slow movement of Schubert’s C major String Quintet, composed in the same year. Both impart more than a trace of Hungarian speech-rhythm, and appropriately enough, when Schubert submitted a list of his available compositions to the publishers Schott & Sons in February 1828, he informed them that the Fantasie was to be dedicated to Karoline Esterházy.
At the time Schubert worked on his F minor Fantasie, Paganini was making his sensational Viennese appearances. In the slow movement of the great violinist’s B minor Concerto Schubert had, as he told his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, ‘heard an angel sing’; and he tried to reproduce the effect, complete with a quasi-portamento, in the Fantasie’s slow movement, at the point where the forceful opening theme, in a sharply ‘dotted’ rhythm, gives way to the radiant calm of the major. When the initial theme returns, it does so at first in a distant pianissimo, as though it had been cowed into submission by the warmth of the violin-like melody; but the moment is short-lived, before the austere grandeur of the movement’s beginning is restored.
The scherzo’s trio is a delicate piece in D major, but it had not always been so: Schubert’s sketches show that he planned to alternate the scherzo itself with a march, and to have each section appear twice. His instinct to make the whole design more compact was surely right; and at the end of the da capo a dramatic switch of key and an abrupt silence prepare the return of the Fantasie’s opening melody in dramatic fashion.
The final section offers a substantial reprise of the work’s beginning, after which Schubert clearly needs to intensify his material in order to wind the piece up satisfactorily. His solution is to present the opening section’s march-like second theme in the guise of a double fugue. As the fugal section reaches its climax, the music is dramatically broken off, as though to renew the link between scherzo and finale. Once more, the silence is followed by the work’s opening theme, but this time the melody is presented in a new, chromatically enhanced harmonization that lends it added poignancy; and the chromatic guise is picked up in the work’s final bars—a cry of anguish that rises to a peak before sinking down onto a long-sustained final chord.
Misha Donat © 2010