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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Piano Music, Vol. 4

Llŷr Williams (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Wales
Produced by Judith Sherman
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: December 2019
Total duration: 64 minutes 11 seconds

Schubert's two sets of impromptus, the second arguably a sonata in all but name, date from 1827, the year before the composer's death. These lovely performances were recorded live in Cardiff in 2018.

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.

David Truslove & Simon Rees © 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

Other albums in this series

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