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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDH88034
Recording details: June 1981
Unknown, Unknown
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: December 1988
Total duration: 26 minutes 26 seconds

Four Impromptus, D899 Op 90
composer
1827

Other recordings available for download
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Misha Donat © 1996


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