There’s melody, melancholy, and perhaps a touch of madness in the two late Schubert sonatas framing a gentle early work. The Sonata in A Minor, likely written when the composer learned of the gravity of his venereal disease, is a dark-hued journey from its disconsolate opening to jittery finale. The Sonata in A Major flows with some of Schubert’s most fetching melodies, but the rampaging scales, trills, and clusters that interrupt a tender second-movement theme suggest nightmare or hallucination—perhaps Schubert’s cry of misery from the effects of disease.
Schubert and the Piano
Unlike the great composer-pianists of the 19th century—such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt—Schubert was by many reports a less-than-stellar keyboard player. There seems to be no reason to question the judgment of Schubert’s contemporary Ferdinand Hiller—who was also a composer and virtuoso pianist—that he “had but little technique.” On the other hand, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand testified that “although Schubert never represented himself as a virtuoso, any connoisseur who had the chance of hearing him in private circles will nevertheless attest that he knew how to treat the instrument with mastery and in a quite peculiar manner, so that a great specialist in music, to whom he once played his last sonatas, exclaimed: ‘Schubert, I almost admire your playing even more than your compositions!’”
This account is corroborated by another ear-witness to Schubert’s piano playing, who admired the warmly lyrical, human-scaled sound he coaxed from the light-framed, bell-toned Viennese fortepianos of his day. (Such playing contrasted sharply with the powerful, quasi-orchestral sound produced by string-snapping virtuosos like Beethoven and Liszt, who favored the more powerful English and French pianos.) After performing his Sonata in A Minor, D. 845, at a private musical soirée in Vienna, the composer boasted to his father that more than one listener had come up to him to say that “the keys became singing voices under my hands, which, if true, pleases me greatly, since I cannot endure the accursed chopping which even distinguished pianoforte players indulge in and which delights neither the ear nor the mind.”
The same qualities that made Schubert a great song composer—his seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance, his quicksilver changes of keys and moods—are equally apparent in his solo piano music. If Schubert’s impromptus, ländler, moments musicaux, and other short piano pieces distill the essence of his lyrical genius in its purest and most concentrated form, his mature piano sonatas combine the intimacy of the salon with an almost symphonic breadth. Astonishingly, Schubert lived to see only three of his piano sonatas in print. The vast majority of his works were published posthumously, and it was not until the 20th century that complete scores of all 21 piano sonatas became available.
Mitsuko Uchida, Piano
Tuesday, June 18, 2019 8 PM
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage Carnegie Hall, New York
Ticket Info, Carnegie Hall Website
Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, D. 568
Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 784
Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959