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Schubert's final piano sonata—D960 in B flat major—and the seminal 'Wanderer' fantasy as captured live during Llŷr Williams' electrifying concert series at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2018/9.
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.
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.'
David Truslove © 2019
'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 © 2019