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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

A Schubert Journey

Llŷr Williams (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Judith Sherman
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2020
Total duration: 575 minutes 39 seconds

Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams is widely admired for his profound musical intelligence and the expressive and communicative nature of his interpretations. These recordings were made in conjunction with a critically lauded recital series at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

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Piano Sonata in A major D959
The Sonata No 20 in A major was written in 1828 and is Schubert’s penultimate sonata, completed only a few months before his death. He wrote his last three piano sonatas between the spring and autumn of 1828, and seems to have intended them as a set, as there are thematic resemblances both within the individual sonata movements and between the three sonatas themselves. These sonatas were not published until ten years after Schubert’s death, and took a long time to be accepted as the late masterpieces they are, alongside the Quintet in C major and the songs later collected as Schwanengesang.

The first movement is in A major, marked Allegro, and opens with declamatory chords over an A pedal, followed by downward-tumbling arpeggios. The second subject is song-like, harmonised in four parts. As is usual in classical sonata form, the second subject exposition is in the dominant, E major. The development section moves between C major and B major, and is based on a version of the second subject. The recapitulation returns to the tonic, and visits the tonic minor, before the coda builds on the opening theme, played more quietly, and the movement ends with delicate, pianissimo arpeggios ascending and descending the length of the keyboard.

The second movement, Andantino, is in F sharp minor (sharing a key signature of three sharps with A major) and opens with a plaintive, melancholy theme, where the descending seconds sound like a sigh. The movement is in ABA form, and the middle section is a turbulent fantasia, wandering through distant keys and punctuated by crashing chords concluding in C sharp minor. A recitative-like, declamatory passage broken by dramatic pauses leads back to the A section, now modified by ornamentation in its accompaniment.

The Scherzo is back in A major, and opens with brisk, broken chords that are a continuation of those that ended the previous movement, thus linking the two together. There is something barcarolle-like in the lively sextuplets of the Scherzo’s B section, which ends with a falling C sharp major scale for which Schubert gives no harmonic preparation. The D major trio is also in ABA (ternary) form, and uses hand-crossing to set up its own contrasting texture before the movement concludes with a reprise of the Scherzo.

The final movement is a lyrical Rondo, and its melody has been described as an answer to the question posed by the sonata’s opening theme. It takes the form ABA – development – ABA – coda, and is therefore in rondo-sonata form. During the development, Schubert returns to C sharp minor which has already made several appearances in the sonata, another element that links the movements together. The coda brings back a broken version of the first subject, again broken up by dramatic full-bar pauses, followed by a presto section. The sonata ends in a reverse of its opening, with an ascending arpeggio followed by the declamatory chords played in reverse.

Moments musicaux D780
Schubert’s Moments musicaux were published by Leidesdorf in Vienna in 1828, the year of Schubert’s death, and are among his most popular pieces of solo piano music. The first moment begins with a unison statement, and goes on to develop this in triplets, in an ABA form. The second, Andantino, has the mood of a lullaby, in 9/8 time. The third, Allegro moderato, begins in F minor and ends in F major, with a brass-band-like bass line heralding the dance theme.

The fourth movement, in C sharp minor, has a running, accompaniment in semiquavers in the A sections, while the central B section releases the tension. Like the third movement, the Allegro vivace begins in F minor and ends in F major, with passionate chords and a rapid movement. The final movement, in A flat major, has a superficial simplicity that reveals greater depths of emotion and meaning.

Klavierstücke D946
Two months before the publication of Moments musicaux in July 1828, Schubert completed the first two of what were to become his Drei Klavierstücke. The third is thought to have been written the previous year, although it is not known if the three pieces were intended to form a distinct group. These works, like his two volumes of Impromptus (D899 and D935) dating from 1827 and Moments musicaux (D780), written periodically between 1823 and 1828, all belong to a group of character pieces which in varying degrees approach the status of full-scale sonata movements.

Just as all but three of his piano sonatas were published posthumously, so too these Klavierstücke had to wait until Brahms issued them for the first time in 1868, forty years after Schubert’s death. Perhaps the neutral title of Klavierstücke ('piano pieces') has prevented their better acquaintance, yet while these works are less celebrated than his other character pieces they are as substantial and searching as any of his late sonatas and are among the composer’s most forward-looking creations.

No 3 is in a bright C major and is the shortest and yet most virtuosic of the group, sharing its ABA structure with No 1, otherwise inhabiting a markedly different character. To the third’s ebullient outer sections, with its five bar phrase patterns, offbeat accents and forte outbursts, Schubert adds a jubilant coda which hurtles along to a bracing close. But a central panel in D flat major (a semi-tone key shift previously applied for the slow section of the 'Wanderer') provides an emotionally remote hymn-like foil, its insistent pulse and repeated rhythmic shapes bordering on the hypnotic.

Piano Sonata in B flat major D960
As if facing down the irreversible truth of his illness, Schubert’s final year was, by any standards, extraordinarily fruitful. It saw the completion of his ninth symphony (March), the Fantasy in F minor (April), the Mass in E flat (begun in June), Schwanengesang (August), three epic piano sonatas, (September) and, finally, the glorious Quintet in C (October). Little-wonder that Benjamin Britten described Schubert’s last phase as the 'richest and most productive eighteen months in music history'.

Exhausted from feverish work by September 1828, and in ever-more deteriorating health, Schubert moved away from central Vienna to its leafy suburbs in a move designed to alleviate his condition. But dampness and poor sanitation at his brother’s house merely hindered any possibility of relief from his symptoms. It was within this unhealthy environment and background of acute headaches that his last three sonatas (including D960) were completed on 26 September.

The Sonata in B flat opens in a manner characteristic of many of Schubert’s songs and its gentle first theme, momentarily disturbed by an ominous bass trill (a chilling premonition if ever there was), glows with a prophetic luminosity. This theme gradually gathers intensity and, after a grand restatement, gives way to a new wandering melody. After the exploration of these ideas there appears a new theme in the bass (first heard from within staccato arpeggios) supported by an insistent rhythmic accompaniment. Appearing as if by stealth, the opening theme reappears now magically transformed, sublime and introspective. It is, however, more a sense of resignation than radiance that permeates the remainder of this expansive movement.

Only in the restrained tones of the Andante sostenuto, with its tolling-bell left hand, might one think Schubert was reconciled to his fate. Combining ethereal beauty and contemplation, the valedictory mood of this gentle dance is unmistakable. Its poetic stillness is abandoned in a delicately graceful Scherzo, its buoyant mood interrupted for a brief halting Trio. Just as silence interrupted the lyrical flow in the first movement (time stopping still), so too here in the fourth movement a recurring pause inhibits the flow of this exhilarating music. For all the underlying tensions that cloud this movement, its final pages conclude with a sense of determined affirmation.

Grosse Fantasie 'Wanderer' D760
The 'Wanderer' Fantasy was written in the autumn of 1822, soon after the composer ceased work on what was to become his 'Unfinished' Symphony and during a period when he was still confident of his operatic ventures. Perhaps no other piano work by Schubert better expresses his self-assurance, for the Fantasy is a work of considerable brilliance and its formidable demands would have seriously challenged its dedicatee—the wealthy businessman and amateur pianist Karl Emanuel von Liebenberg de Zsittin. Schubert himself was unable to play the work and supposedly exclaimed: 'The devil may play this, I can’t.'

Designed to be played without a break, its four movements are linked by a repeated-note rhythm, heard at the outset, derived from the song Der Wanderer about a lonely wayfarer whom fate has dealt unkindly. The work’s opening gambit generates two further ideas that are themselves subtle transformations of the initial statement. Assertiveness gives way to rumination in a slow section (with a rare upward shift of a semitone to C sharp minor) in which a fragment from the gentle 'Wanderer' melody provides both the work’s title and the basis for three variations. There follows a fiery scherzo which juxtaposes immense energy with a wonderful innocence in a theme of beguiling simplicity. The final section, beginning as a fugue, is no less apocalyptic, and its unrestrained bravura element concludes a work of extraordinary intensity.

Klavierstücke D946
Although a world away from the certainties of the 'Wanderer', there is no small degree of intensity in the first of Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, a set of three untitled piano pieces completed in May 1828. Had the composer not died six months later he might have added a fourth piece to conclude what could have been a third volume of Impromptus, a title still attributed on occasion to D946. Schubert’s decision to veer towards groups of single movement pieces such as Impromptus and Moments musicaux was no doubt prompted by publishers’ indifference to anything other than songs, piano duets and dances. Not one of the symphonies was published during Schubert’s lifetime, and it was Brahms who anonymously edited the Klavierstücke in 1868 and gave the works their collective title.

The first of the group was originally conceived as a five-part rondo with two contrasting episodes, and although the second was later withdrawn some pianists occasionally perform this extended edition. This shorter ABA version (heard here) is launched by an Allegro assai in the rarely used key of E flat minor. Its feverish momentum and repeated note figuration pauses just once for dramatic effect and is immediately followed by a restatement in the tonic major before yielding to a central Andante of rapt intimacy in the warm embrace of B major. Yet there’s little sense of serenity in its expansive lyricism, more a sense of quiet resignation, its unease created by dense left-hand chords, moments of technical virtuosity and restless tremolos.

Little wonder then that Robert Schumann, one of Schubert’s great admirers, wrote so highly of his music and declared: 'He has sounds to express the most delicate of feelings, of thoughts, indeed even for the events and conditions of human life.'

Piano Sonata in C minor D958
Schubert’s last three piano sonatas, written between the spring and autumn of 1828, the last year of his life, are often considered as a group, sharing many elements of structure and form. He performed the three sonatas at a concert for his friends on 28 September 1828, and in October offered them to his publisher, Probst, who was not interested. Schubert’s health, already weak, rapidly deteriorated and he died on 19 November 1828, at the age of thirty-one.

The Sonata in C minor, like the others in the group of three, is strongly influenced by Beethoven, at whose funeral the previous year Schubert had been a pall-bearer. The opening of the Allegro first movement of this sonata is very close to the theme of Beethoven’s 32 Piano Variations on a theme (catalogue WoO80), which is also in C minor. There are also reminiscences of Beethoven’s 'Pathetique' sonata, No 8 Op 13, again in C minor. The second subject is a chorale-like tune in E flat major, the relative major to C minor.

After the repeat of the exposition section, the development continues chromatically, exploring distant keys. At the recapitulation there is a return to the tonic, and the coda dies away in reminiscences of the development section.

The second movement, Adagio, is in A flat major, and structured A-B-A-B-A. Its tranquil opening theme is developed in a way that gives it a darker quality, and in the B sections there is intense chromaticism and forceful, emotion-laden chords. The second appearance of the A and B sections is a semitone higher than before.

The third movement is a menuetto and trio, but far darker and more sombre in mood than the usual classical minuet. The menuetto is in C minor, in two parts, each repeated, the second part containing two bar-long rests that give a disquieting feeling that persists to the end of the movement. The trio is in A flat major, structured A-B-A, with the B section in E flat major.

The sonata-form final movement, Allegro, is again in C minor, and has a rapid, racing 6/8 rhythm reminiscent of a tarantella or a moto perpetuo. The first theme moves from C minor to C major, while the second moves towards C sharp minor. A new theme enters in the development section, progressing to a climax which introduces the recapitulation in which the first theme reappears in shortened form. The wild leaps and bounding arpeggios give the movement a liveliness that is offset by its predominantly minor key colouring, and leave something of the flavour of a dance of death.

Piano Sonata in D major D850
Franz Schubert wrote his Piano Sonata in D major, D850, while staying at the Austrian spa resort of Bad Gastein, due south of Salzburg, in August 1825. Bad Gastein was—and remains—a popular holiday spot, where the spa waters (later discovered by Marie Curie to contain radon) were thought to have therapeutic qualities. Schubert travelled there with his friend the baritone Michael Vogl, for whom he wrote many of his songs. Schubert wrote in a letter that he felt ‘imprisoned’ by ‘the incredibly high rocky walls … and the fearful depths below.’ Vogl had picked on Gastein as he was suffering from gout, and had decided that this spa town was the best place to take the cure. He also met his friend the poet Pyrker, two of whose poems Schubert set during his stay.

The sonata is in four movements, and has been noted for its Alpine qualities, both in melody and rhythm. The first, Allegro vivace, opens with a fanfare, immediately repeated in the minor, later developed in characteristic Schubertian manner in an exposition that wanders through many remote keys. The second subject has been compared to the sound of Austrian yodelling, and has some similarity with Schubert’s setting of Pyrker’s Das Heimweh. The second movement is in A major, and is in ABABA form, with a faster tempo than is usual in Schubert’s second movements of piano sonatas. The triplet figure that is so marked in the first movement reappears here. The second subject has some violent syncopation, which then merges with the more meditative opening subject as the movement comes to its conclusion. The third movement is a scherzo and trio in G major, with a lively, dotted quality to the scherzo and a steady lyricism to the trio. The last movement, again in D major, is a rondo in ABACA form, the main theme being a military march, repeated with variations and divisions, and interspersed with contrasting episodes, leading to a quiet coda.

Four Impromptus D899 Op 90
Schubert conceived two sets of Impromptus in 1827, a miraculous year that included the two piano trios and the completion of Winterreise. The title 'impromptu'—meaning a short keyboard piece with an improvisatory character—had earlier found its way into Viennese musical circles following the publication in 1822 of Six Impromptus by Jan Václav Voříšek (1791-1825). Perhaps its success prompted the rising publisher Tobias Haslinger to issue the first two of Schubert’s D899 group with the heading 'impromptu' when they were printed in December 1827. Despite the title, there is little that can be considered 'impromptu' about these works which, whilst contemporary with the desolation of Winterreise, reveal an equable mood and, at times, a serenity of spirit.

The first of the impromptus, in C minor (the most substantial of the group), opens with a resolute, march-like theme, initially sapped of all vitality, and leads to two related themes. But it is the emotional ambiguity between resignation and stubbornness that gives expressive shape to its structural logic. The second impromptu, in E flat major, is a featherlight, easy-going affair (notwithstanding disturbing shifts to the tonic minor) and yields to a boisterous central episode, its bluster returning for the accelerating final bars. Hints of paradise suffuse the third impromptu—now in the warm embrace of G flat major—and the set ends with one of his most popular creations; the Allegretto in A flat where surface glitter hides a contrived sparkle inhabited by a composer with just over a year to live. In these wonderful pieces there’s no better place to find Schubert 'smiling through tears'.

Four Impromptus D935 Op 142
It is a legitimate question why Schubert’s second set of four Impromptus, D935, is not considered as a four-movement sonata. Even shortly after Schubert ‘s death it was suggested that he divided the work into four separate movements for commercial reasons, rather than artistic ones. However, there are other indications to suggest that Schubert intended these four movements as a continuation from his previous set of four Impromptus, D899, as he originally numbered them 5-8. The second set of impromptus was published in 1839, eleven years after Schubert’s death, with a dedication by the publisher to Franz Liszt. Both sets were written in 1827, a year before Schubert died.

The first impromptu is in rondo form, in five sections, A1-B1-A2-B2-A3. During the B sections a beautiful effect is obtained by the left hand playing alternately in the lower and upper registers of the keyboard, while the right hand maintains steady semiquaver arpeggios. The second impromptu is a minuet, with a contrasting trio. The third impromptu is a theme and variations. The theme resembles a melody from Schubert’s incidental music to the play Rosamunde. The variations progress in Beethovenian fashion with increasingly complex divisions and ornamentation. The deeply emotional fourth variation begins with a staccato theme using a hemiola pattern of three beats against two, then modulates to keys remote from the tonic F minor such as A flat minor, C flat minor and A major. A lengthy chromatic meditation leads into a vigorous coda.

Piano Sonata in A minor D845
‘To hear and see his piano compositions played by himself was a real pleasure’, recalled Albert Stadler many years after the composer’s death. After a performance of the slow movement from his expansive A minor Sonata, D845 Schubert himself reported, ‘Several people assured me that under my hands the keys became singing voices …’ The implied cantabile playing style provides a clue to the essence of Schubert’s piano writing in which typically a long-spun melody unfolds above a smooth rippling accompaniment. Despite his incomparable lyrical gifts and poetic sensitivity his sonatas have never achieved the same stature as Beethoven’s, yet for sheer accessibility there can be few better introductions to Schubert’s twenty-one sonatas than the two captivating works presented here.

The first, D845, belongs to the early spring of 1825 following a miserable year which included a brief return to teaching at his father’s schoolhouse and confirmation of his syphilis. His music matured almost overnight: in works such as his Octet, the string quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’ and the ‘Grand Duo’ sonata a new depth of feeling emerged suggesting he was on the threshold of an extraordinarily productive final phase. This was to include a renewed interest in piano writing, notwithstanding earlier failures to secure critical attention or the rejection of his austere Sonata in A minor (D784). But Schubert would contribute three piano sonatas to the repertoire in 1825: those in C major (D840), D major (D850) and this characterful work in A minor.

Two contrasting themes shape the opening movement’s changeable mood: the first, heard at the outset in unison, is rather shy, and is soon followed by an assertive, defiant figure launched by descending octaves. The first theme, now in variant form, plays a significant role in the chromatically-rich development—its sense of foreboding gaining impetus until a surprise shift to A major temporarily dispels the unease. It is, however, the insistent secondary idea that eventually gains prominence and the movement ends on a note of tragic grandeur.

The slow movement comprises five variations on a simple melody carried initially by an inner voice. Following the first variation (with the melody now at the top), decoration and embellishment increasingly occupy the blithe second and third variations. Dramatic tensions disturb the minor key third, while the fourth (in A flat major) brings a certain élan and yields to a final variation, now in a serene C major. Persistent patterns in the A minor Scherzo are offset by flexible phrase lengths, varied voicing and a change to the tonic major, the whole relieved by a central Trio in a gently rocking F major. A busy Rondo Finale—marked by quavers with clear two-part textures—provides a brilliant close to this fascinating work.

Piano Sonata in G major D894
Schubert wrote this sonata in October 1826, the year in which he completed his Great C major Symphony and his dark and brooding G major string quartet. He was already ill, and much of his music from the last two years of his life is melancholy and full of thoughts of death. This sonata, however, is relatively tranquil in mood throughout, although with some darker passages. Schubert’s publisher Tobias Haslinger gave the first movement, which is in sonata form, the title ‘Fantasie’, and the nickname has stuck to the whole sonata. Haslinger seems to have wished to present the four movements as separate pieces (piano sonatas having gone temporarily out of fashion) but there is no doubt that Schubert intended them to form a unified sonata. Schubert dedicated the sonata to his friend Josef Ritter von Spaun, an Austrian nobleman who was Schubert’s generous patron and the host of several of the Schubertiade gatherings at which the composer played his music to friends and admirers.

The first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, is in 12/8 time, the opening theme a dance-like, dotted rhythm, which leads into the second theme of the exposition, a leisurely waltz. The first theme returns in the exposition in a tempestuous form, but the movement ends in tranquillity again. The Andante second movement, still in G major, also begins in tranquillity but progresses to a stormier episode. When the opening melody returns, it is with ornamentation, rather like the ornamented repeat in a baroque da capo aria, with its ABA form. The menuetto and trio are in the relative key of B major, turning to B minor in the trio, and whereas there was a waltz in the first movement, the triple-time dance here is a Haydnesque Ländler, the rural precursor to the waltz, both in the minuet and the trio sections. The final movement, Allegretto, is a brisk and cheerful rondo including two contrasting episodes.

Piano Sonata in B major D575
1817, the year in which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed his Sonata in B major, was a year of significant musical activity in Europe. The Congress of Vienna two years before had stabilised European politics after the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, and commissions for compositions once more began to flow. Rossini wrote four operas in that year, including La Cenerentola and The Thieving Magpie. Beethoven, much admired by Schubert, wrote his String Quintet, Op 104. Schubert himself composed his String Trio in B flat major. Although this sonata, catalogued as No 9, was composed in 1817, it was not published until after his death.

The sonata’s first movement, Allegro, ma non troppo, is heavily chromatic from the outset, with striding octaves stating the first subject. After the first fermata, there is a key change to G major, and the second subject, accompanied by triplets in the left hand, is introduced in octaves in the right hand.

This section explores further keys, moving through E major and F sharp major, and is then repeated. The recapitulation is unusual among Schubert’s sonatas in that it repeats the exposition section exactly, transposed down a fourth to the home key of B major.

The E major Andante has a song-like theme, simply harmonised, followed by a passage with bell-like spread chords over a lyrical melody in the bass. Later, a heroic bass melody in octave semiquavers is overtopped with dense chords, and then succeeded by the original theme, now played against a similar semiquaver figure. The bass semiquavers continue to rumble ominously as the movement comes to its otherwise tranquil end.

The G major Scherzo has a lively dance rhythm like a brisk Ländler or a rather bucolic minuet, contrasting with the lilting rhythm of the D major Trio, which has a running quaver figure throughout its length.

The Allegro giusto last movement returns to B major in a 3/8 dance-like theme, not so much lilting as limping bravely, to which a second subject of great lyricism is added, and then repeated in the minor. The movement explores the key of G major before returning to B major at its conclusion.

Piano Sonata in A major D664
'To hear and see his piano compositions played by himself was a real pleasure', recalled Schubert’s friend Albert Stadler many years after the composer’s death. After a performance of the slow movement from his expansive A minor Sonata D845 Schubert himself reported, 'Several people assured me that under my hands the keys became singing voices …' His cantabile playing style, suggested here, provides a clue to the essence of Schubert’s piano writing in which (with some obvious exceptions) a long-spun melody unfolds above a smooth rippling accompaniment. Despite his incomparable lyrical gifts and poetic sensitivity, Schubert’s sonatas have never achieved the same stature as Beethoven’s, yet for sheer accessibility there can be no better introduction to these works than this captivating Sonata in A major.

Composed when he was twenty-two, D664 marks the threshold of his final years and anticipates the transcendent works of his maturity. It was conceived amid the idyllic surroundings of the Alpine resort of Steyr in Upper Austria in July 1819 while the composer was on a walking tour with the baritone Michel Vogl. That the holiday had a reviving effect on Schubert is clear from the completion, the same summer, of his 'Trout' Quintet, one of his most overtly cheerful works. There’s little doubt of Schubert’s carefree vigour in this sonata’s blithe opening movement and its song-like main theme seems to breathe fresh mountain air, its serenity only briefly broken in the vigorous scales that animate the central development. A gentle melancholy unfolds in the harmonically ambiguous Andante (nominally in D major), notable for its persistent rhythmic scheme and a magical key change to G major. Wistfulness is swept aside in the trouble-free Allegro, bringing this finely crafted work to an emphatic close.

Piano Sonata in A minor D784
By the time Schubert wrote this Sonata in A minor in February 1823, the assurance and dynamism of 'The Wanderer' from four months earlier had all but vanished. With the collapse of his operatic ambitions and the knowledge of his irreversible syphilis (then endemic in Vienna), his sense of failure must have been complete. Little wonder that this second of three sonatas in A minor opens in such startlingly sombre tones. The bravura manner and heart-easing lyricism (shared with 'The Wanderer') assumes a tragic weariness here and anticipates the composer staring into the void in Winterreise and his final contributions to the sonata medium.

The first movement’s sullen mood seems to be a direct response to the news of his deteriorating health. It opens with an austere theme that soon expands into a forthright idea underpinned by ominous trills and tolling bells. Solace from bare octaves and determined scale figuration is eventually gained in a glowing passage in E major, remarkable for the sense of heartbreak within its bright tonality. Descending scales return with a vengeance in the central development, where fury is soon tamed by a now-transformed secondary theme. Fierce interruptions aside , the recapitulation unfolds with sombre reminiscences and the movement closes quietly. The introspection of the Andante offers a glimpse into a remote world, unsettled by mysterious rhythmic murmurings that regularly haunt its otherwise placid demeanour. By contrast, the helter-skelter finale seems bent on escape. Scurrying hands make way for a touching theme of wintry smiles, but it is the movement’s dramatic frenzy that colours a finale of Beethovenian defiance.

Piano Sonata in C major D840
Except for the Sechzehn Deutsche Tänze, D783, none of the music recorded here was published during Schubert’s lifetime. Although he had begun to build a reputation as a composer of lieder, piano duets and dances after the publication of Erlkönig and the 36 Original Tänze in 1821, his dreams of recognition for his more ambitious works were to be continually frustrated by the indifference of publishers whose commercial interests were drawn to satisfying public demand for what he contemptuously dismissed as 'Miserable Mode-Waare' ('wretched fashionable stuff'). Given the poor prospects for his large-scale piano works, it is not surprising he left a number of incomplete movements and numerous standalone movements likely belonging to unfinished sonata projects. Of the 20 or so piano sonatas he began, only three appeared in print before his early death aged thirty-one in 1828.

Two years earlier Schubert’s imposing Sonata in A minor, D845, was his first to be published thanks to the Viennese firm of Anton Pennauer. Given this encouragement, and its positive notice by the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, it is curious that he made no attempt to return to his Sonata in C major, D840 begun in April 1825 (only shortly before D845) and later abandoned after only completing its first two movements. In this form it was finally published in 1861 under the misleading title 'Reliquie' ('relic'). It is perhaps his largest unfinished piano sonata, yet its remarkable sense of space suggests it had the potential for being one of his most important four movement works.

The opening Moderato is built on two related themes; a 'plain-speaking' phrase in bare octaves with an answering chordal idea, is followed by one in the unrelated key of B minor that exploits the first theme’s initial interval of a sixth. This secondary theme also echoes the rhythm of the opening phrase and its syncopated accompaniment had initially appeared in an assertive restatement of the main theme. Continuity achieved thus far in the exposition is further underlined in the harmonically discursive development where earlier triplet figuration now contributes to its Beethovenian drama. This is eventually subdued by a subtly altered version of the main theme, its pianissimo 'false' reprise soon finding resolution in the right key (C major) before an extended coda and much renewed momentum brings a final quiet reminiscence of the chords heard near the outset.

For the ensuing rondo-form Andante, initially in C minor, Schubert alternates self-absorbed melancholy with peaceful acceptance in five extended paragraphs. Each finds room for brief moments of disturbance marked by falling sevenths (in the minor key sections) and rhythmic outbursts in the major key episodes. Both unsettling moments heighten the movement’s restless undercurrent which, despite a change to a bright C major with the return of the gentle flowing passage, closes with no small degree of resignation.

2 Scherzos D593
If 1825 had been a fruitful year for piano writing—it also included his Sonata in D major, D850 and the 8 Ecossaises, D977—1817 was Schubert’s other highly productive keyboard year; one that gave rise to repeated experiments with the piano sonata. Alongside six such works (commentators still argue how many sonatas were truly finished) the year yielded a set of Variations on a Theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner, D576 and Two Scherzos, D593, believed to have been written in November when Schubert had temporally returned to live in his father’s schoolhouse.

The first is a convivial Allegretto in B-flat whose 'how do you do?' opening gesture and carefree manner has a certain Haydnesque humour where impish triplets make way for a song-like Trio in E flat major. Viennese gaiety is swept aside by the succeeding Scherzo, an extrovert Allegro moderato in D flat major launched with a series of rallying chords, which periodically return (twice in the distant key of E major) to provide structural pillars for busy passage work. The outwardly boisterous feel is set in relief by the quieter, yet still playful, central Trio.

Ungarische Melodie D817
The Ungarische Melodie, D817, belongs to the second of two visits Schubert made to Zelész in Hungary between late May and mid-October 1824. At a salary of 100 florins a month, his duties included teaching and supervising the musical activities of the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy of Galánta during their summer residence. Schubert still found time to compose and produced several works for piano duet including the C major Sonata ('Grand Duo'), D812, the Variations in A flat major, D813 and the Divertissement à la Hongroise, D818, works presumably envisioned for the girls. He would later dedicate his Fantasie in F minor, D940, to the younger sister Karoline. Contemporary reports indicate Schubert’s Melodie was inspired by a folk tune sung by a Hungarian maid working in the Esterházys’ kitchen. Dated 2nd September 1824, this short piece was to be the impetus behind the more expansive closing Rondo of his three-movement Divertissement à la Hongroise, which later went on to find a home within Franz Liszt’s two-handed transcription Mélodies hongroises d’après Schubert, S425.

Liszt was one of several composers who brought Schubert’s music to a wider public through editions of selected sonatas and dozens of transcriptions (mostly lieder) including the incorporation of nine waltzes into his Soirées de Vienne, S427. Dances occupied Schubert across his entire career and despite their neglect in concert performance his numerous collections contain a wealth of delightful music. According to Josef von Spaun, Schubert was in the habit of surprising his friends 'with the most beautiful German Dances and Ecossaises', while another member of the composer’s circle observed he would 'sit down at the piano where for hours he would improvise the loveliest waltzes; repeating those he remembered and then write them down'.

16 Deutsche Tänze D783
Of the 100 or so Deutsche Tänze (variously combining the character of the minuet, the ländler, and the waltz), these Sechzehn Deutsche Tänze, D783 were mainly composed in 1823 and 1824 and subsequently published in Vienna on 8 January 1825 under the title 'Deutsche Tänze und Ecossaises für das Pianoforte'. With two exceptions (Nos 1 and 10) they are laid out in the identical format of two eight-bar phrases, each repeated. The sturdy first gives way to tenderness in the second, while the winsome third yields to the whirling energy of the fourth. Flowing rhythms bring calm to the minor-key fifth and the sixth recalls the earthy manner of the first. A dream-like seventh is followed by the irregular accents of the eighth and stamping rhythms add a rustic flavour to its successor. Pre-echoes of Chopin might be detected in the gentle tenth, and to the eleventh Schubert generates sparkle. The next two (both in C major) are agreeably good-humoured, while two consecutive appearances of F minor introduce sobriety and the final dance (in F major) rounds off the set to match the mood of the opening. With perfectly judged contrasts of mood, texture and tonality, Schubert succeeds in creating a cohesive entity of otherwise disparate miniatures.

Allegretto in C minor D915
Schubert’s fondness for beginning movements with subdued unison statements finds expression again in his melancholy Allegretto in C minor, D915, unpublished until 1870 but penned on April 26th, 1827. It was conceived as a farewell gift for his friend Ferdinand Walcher—a fine amateur singer, lawyer and recently appointed member of the imperial civil service—who had entered Schubert’s circle the previous year and was soon to leave Vienna to take up a posting to Venice.

The work’s combination of 6/8 metre and flowing arpeggios seems to hint at gondoliers’ songs its dedicatee would soon encounter, and the alternating minor/major tonalities evoke the regret of departure and hope of return. Momentum in the outer panels is twice interrupted by the arrival of two disquieting chords, while sighing gestures bring untroubled warmth to the movement’s chordal centrepiece in a glowing A flat major.

Song transcriptions by Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt’s evangelising zeal for piano transcription generated a vast catalogue of works encompassing the Renaissance composer Jacob Arcadelt through to Liszt’s compatriot Géza Zichy. Arrangements of operatic arias and overtures and entire symphonies were all grist to his mill, and of 150 songs Liszt transcribed, more than a third were by Schubert. Whilst most of these occupied him for some ten years from 1836, his admiration for the Viennese composer was lifelong. In addition to nearly sixty song transcriptions, Liszt made several orchestral arrangements, including the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, he directed the first performance of Alfonso und Estrella in 1854 and edited two volumes of Schubert’s piano sonatas in 1880. His lieder were transformed into vividly reimagined concert pieces which brilliantly demonstrate Liszt’s heightened response to poetic imagery and resourceful use of keyboard sonorities.

Das Wandern, S565/1, and Der Müller und der Bach, S565/2, belong to Liszt’s pared down transcription of Die schöne Müllerin. Devised in 1846, this assemblage of six songs in no way invalidates the emotional trajectory of Wilhelm Müller’s love-sick miller whose romantic wanderings end permanently beneath the waters of the brook that has been his constant companion. Liszt faithfully renders the playful optimism of Das Wandern (The Wanderer), transcribing three of its five verses, adding arpeggio elaboration to the second and expanding pianistic textures in the third.

The joys of the open road vanish in the numbed despair of Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook) where a heartbroken apprentice shares his grief with his watery confidante. Torment and consolation are perfectly caught here and following an ingeniously fashioned third verse (marked quasi Flauto) Liszt extends the transcription to augment a plea for the brook to continue ‘singing’.

Schubert’s bravura Erlkönig, the fourth of Liszt's Zwölf Lieder, S558, from 1838, would surely have appealed to Liszt’s theatrical instincts and it became a much-requested recital piece for the virtuoso across Europe. The four characters of Goethe’s text (narrator, terrified father, dying child and seductive erlking) are skilfully differentiated by adroit changes in register.

From the same collection comes Frühlingsglaube, S558/7, originally written in 1821 to a text by the Tübingen poet and historian Ludwig Uhland. Translated as ‘Faith in Spring’, the song’s poise reflects the promise of a benign change in nature that will banish all sadness. Its gentle melody transfers from the upper voice to the tenor register before a brief cadenza leads to a closing ritornello.

Setting a poem by Christian Friedrich Schubart, Die Forelle (The Trout), S563/6, is one of Schubert’s most familiar songs and is performed here in an arrangement by Llŷr Williams who amalgamates Liszt’s two 1846 transcriptions. Its vivid portrayal of the waterside scene and the luckless trout is given considerable elaboration.

Schubert’s collection of songs known as Schwanengesang (Swan Song) was collected and published after his death by Tobias Haslinger, who wished to give the impression that Schubert had intended these songs as a cycle in the mode of Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. Franz Liszt wrote piano transcriptions of these songs, rearranging the order, and published them in 1838-39. The four songs in this group are settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab.

In Ständchen (Serenade), S560/7, the poet beckons his lover to him in the moonlight, aided by the song of the nightingales. The birds understand the heart’s longing, and add their voices to that of the poet as he waits for his beloved.

In Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message), S560/10, the poet begs the brook to take a message of greeting to his beloved, and to refresh the flowers in her garden. The brook must comfort her as she dreams of her lover, and murmur a lullaby to her as she goes to sleep. The accompanying figure in this transcription shows the rippling of the brook.

Emotions and nature are superbly entwined in the theatrical Aufenthalt (Resting Place), S560/3. In this fifth song from Schwanengesang, chromatic flourishes darken further the troubled mood and the rustling treetops that smother the poet’s cries in verse two are here amplified by its sonorous three-octave melody.

In der Ferne (From Afar), S560/6, calls down woe on the fugitive who flees his country, forgetting his homeland and his family. But it is clear that the fugitive is fleeing from love, and in the end he sends greetings from afar to his beloved.

In 1841 Liszt published a set of four Geistliche Lieder (Spiritual Songs) of which Litanei, auf das Fest aller Seelen (Litany for All Souls Day), S562/1, sets a devotional text by Johann Georg Jacobi. Whilst reducing Schubert’s three verses to two, this transcription beautifully preserves the rapt mood of the 1816 original and perfectly encapsulates, especially in its octave doubling, Sigismund Thalberg’s notion of ‘the art of singing applied to the piano’.

Ständchen (Serenade), S558/9, is a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings’ from Cymbeline. Schubert’s song has the Deutsch catalogue number D889.

From Winterreise Liszt set 12 songs and rearranged their order, no doubt recognising many of the poet ‘s emotions in words reflecting his own circumstances: an itinerant concert virtuoso travelling around Europe is not so far removed from the lonely wanderer making his way through Schubert’s comfortless song cycle.

To poems by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) published in two volumes in 1824, Schubert produced Winterreise in 1827, when he had come close to breaking point. His friends, during one performance when Schubert sang ‘in a voice wrought with emotion’, were bewildered by the work’s gloom. Franz von Schober, at whose house the songs were sung, declared his liking only for ‘Der Lindenbaum’, the most obviously ‘tuneful’ number in the collection. Conscious he had achieved something quite extraordinary even by his standards, Schubert reportedly replied: ‘I like these songs better than any others, and you will come to like them as well’.

Winterreise concerns a solitary wanderer’s hopeless love, whose sole company on his winter journey (excepting an organ grinder in the final song) is the howling of dogs, a scavenging crow and his own increasingly illusory observations as his mind unravels. Like the composer, the central isolated figure of Winterreise is no longer an innocent youth but one whose life has been blighted by experience.

In Die Post, S561/4, the wanderer rejoices at the sounds of an approaching coach (galloping rhythms and fanfare figures) in the delusional belief that it carries a letter from his sweetheart. Under the bare branches of Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), S561/7, the wanderer dreams of a time when he had carved his sweetheart’s name. The song’s graceful melody glows with lost happiness to which Liszt applies a wealth of delicate ornamentation. Indeed, Liszt places all pianistic means possible at the service of expression, and such was the clarity of execution that one performance in 1839 drew from the Wiener Theaterzeitung the assertion, ‘Performed the way we are hearing it played by Liszt, the songs truly do not need the text to be comprehended’.

Auf dem Wasser zu singen, S558/12, is Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song setting of a poem by Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg. The soul glides like a boat along the shimmering waves, while the sunset reddens the leaves of the trees. Time vanishes on dewy, radiant wings. Schubert’s song setting is Op 72, D774, and was written in 1823.

In Du bist die Ruh' (Thou art peace), S558/3, Friedrich Rückert’s verses suggest a sublime meditation on divine sleep. Liszt initially responds to Schubert’s tender phrases with an inner stillness, before subsequent verses and the poet’s pleas for deliverance unfold with increasing luminosity and mounting passion.

Ave Maria (Ellens Gesang Ill), S558/12, was Schubert’s setting of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ from his long poem The Lady of the Lake, in a translation by Storck which only loosely follows Scott’s English text. The first verse (in Scott’s original) reads:

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild;
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled—
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Altogether, Schubert set seven songs from The Lady of the Lake, in a song cycle Op 52, of which ‘Ave Maria’ is No 6, D839. Schubert’s song was later adapted as a setting for the Latin hymn ‘Ave Maria’, recorded by, among others, the last Vatican castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, leaving the popular but false impression that Schubert himself had written it as a setting of the Latin text.

Signum Classics © 2020

'In a word I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse instead of better … but I have tried my hand at several instrumental things … in fact, I intend to pave the way towards a grand symphony in this manner.'

These extracts from a letter of 1824 epitomise to me the paradox of Schubert, the manic-depressive composer. On the one hand his music has that world-weary element of profound grief—'the most wretched creature in the world'—and on the other a life-affirming exuberance bordering on the manic that characterises the Wanderer-Fantasie and parts of the D major sonata D850.

While Schubert's later piano music has a range of emotions that rivals Beethoven's last sonatas, in the beginning of his career he perhaps lacked the assurance of the older composer, and he was less fastidious about destroying sketches and fragments. As a result there are a large number of unfinished works and, therefore, the pianist has to make a decision about where to start the Schubert odyssey. Schubert himself made no effort to try and publish any of his sonatas before the great A minor D845 of 1825. I decided to start slightly earlier with the B major of 1817 where one senses an assurance and boldness of tonal experiment not found before in his piano music. Perhaps the three earliest sonatas (on Disc 6) manifest the journey into Schubert's maturity: two pieces of a generally sunny disposition followed by the A minor D784, written shortly after he discovered he was suffering from syphilis and one of the most desolate of all his works.

My Schubert recitals at Cardiff also featured several of his Lieder as transcribed by Liszt which we have put together on CD7. The transcription, especially that of 'great' music such as Schubert's remains one of the few genres that is still frowned upon by serious musicians even in the twenty-first century. I would urge these people to consider Schubert's own variations for flute and piano on 'Trockne Blumen', one of the most profound songs in Die schöne Müllerin, and which he turns into one of the most outlandishly virtuosic things ever. Liszt's versions are often admirably restrained by comparison. The songs I have chosen tend to be either those where Liszt employs the full resources of his pianistic prowess to enhance the narrative—Erlkönig, Die Forelle—or those where he manages to turn the piano from percussive machine into the most glamorous of singing instruments—Litanei, Ave Maria.

Llŷr Williams © 2020

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