Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Wanderer's fingers

BBC Radio 3's blissful Schubert extravaganza is unfortunately reaching its close and I feel the urge to pop in another post on the man of the moment, just to bid him goodbye (for a few days).

From 1822 until his early death in 1828 Schubert wrote eight wonderful piano sonatas. He had, however, ploughed the piano sonata field several times before, producing fifteen of them in the years leading up to 1822. Unfortunately eleven of those fifteen were left as fragments. Now it's fair to say that none of these early efforts (finished or unfinished) reaches the standard of their eight elder siblings but there are many pleasures to be had from them and some movements are downright lovable.

Perhaps the best known of these early sonatas is the Piano Sonata in A minor, D537. There used to be a popular presumption that it was a later work than it actually is and that may have helped it achieve a somewhat higher public profile than its rather neglected companions. This misconception doubtless arose because, unlike most of them, it actually sounds like mature Schubert. It also has the added advantage of having an especially fine first movement. This energetic section has several strong and distinctive themes, with a new tune appearing in the development section which (to my ears) derives from a fusion of the final notes of the second and third themes of the exposition. The Allegretto middle movement may strike many of you who haven't even heard it before as strangely familiar. That's because its charming main theme was re-fashioned for the finale of the late, very great Sonata in A major, D959. The transformation of the simple tune of D537 into the fabulous, flexible theme of D959 shows the extent to which Schubert developed as a composer. The Allegretto here is a relatively simple affair in rondo form with three appearances of the theme around two episodes. Each reappearance casts the tune in a different light and the episodes are contrasted - one caressing, the other more march-like. The Finale, the least attractive of the three movements, begins with something of a bang but gets a gentle answer and unfolds as another rondo, with the energy of its main sections being balanced by more lyrical episodes before ending quite dramatically.

The Piano Sonata in E major, D459 bears less of the stamp of mature Schubert and can't be classed among the finest of the early sonatas for all its attractive qualities. It's in five movements only because Schubert didn't get round to getting rid of one of its two scherzos, due to never preparing the piece for publication. It opens with a Mozart-like melody and its first movement maintains a Classical elegance throughout. Its gentle self-entwining second subject is particularly winning and its development section takes motifs from the main theme and, with the assistance of repeated notes, builds up quite a bit of tension. The first scherzo is a leap into something very different. (Surely this is the movement he would have excised, given that it seems rather out of character with its companions). Obsessive and rather impressive, it is certainly a serious piece of motif-driven writing. The lyrical central slow movement has a long melody whose character is again more Classical than Schubertian but which passes through contrasting harmonies in a way that is more characteristic of its composer. The other scherzo is a lighter piece with a simple but charming trio section. The least attractive movement is, again, the Finale (with the intriguing marking Allegro patetico) that sounds to me a bit like a pianistic take on the end-of-act operatic ensemble.

More characteristic is the Piano Sonata in E flat major, D568. This is generally Schubert at his most genial and Viennese-sounding and, though not a favourite of mine, is well worth knowing. Its arpeggio-based opening theme is a charmer and the second subject of the light-spirited first movement always makes me smile. The development section here seems to be improvising on the arpeggios of the main theme. There's a move into G minor for the following slow movement which mixes melancholic dreams with moments of drama - which is as characteristic of Schubert as his genial side. After this fine movement (my favourite) comes a tuneful if less special Minuet, whose main theme is full of surprising rhythmic kicks. Just as light as the Minuet and the first movement is the Finale with its cheerful main tune, though it has a slightly wistful second subject. It babbles along pleasingly.

With the Piano Sonata in B major, D575 we find the young Schubert attempting something more ambitious. Geniality is replaced by a restlessness of spirit. The work at times points to later pieces but can't match them in either sweep or power. The first movement is full of variety, contrasting loud imperious calls with gentler, more lyrical phrases. Initially there seem to be dotted rhythms everywhere but these recede as the exposition proceeds and the music tends attractively towards tunefulness. The development section starts with some striking key changes but trails off thereafter and, disappointingly, there's no coda (where Schubert so often gives his listeners some final consummating magic.) The Andante's opening theme is a winner, peaceful and lyrical. The gentle mood it sets, however, is disrupted by a short but shocking eruption of stormy intensity - a premonition of later Schubert. The staccato writing that immediately follows the eruption persists even when the lyrical music returns, now accompanying the main melody. The scherzo is, for me, the star movement of this sonata - and the one where the true Schubert shines forth most clearly. With appealing part-writing, dance rhythms, lovely textures and a cheerful demeanour it makes for an enjoyable listen and its trio is charming and folk-like. The Finale has a lot going for it too, with a hearty, swinging main theme and generates a generally happy atmosphere - though some of the restless urge towards variety found in the opening movement is also felt here.

My favourite fragment is the Allegro moderato for a Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, D571. (Please compare the performance in the link provided with this to get a pair of contrasting perspectives on the piece). We have the complete exposition and the complete development section. At the end of the development section, however, the score breaks off. I remain puzzled as to why the exposition can't simply be repeated  as the recapitulation (with the appropriate measures taken to put in all in the tonic key), particularly as Schubert wasn't averse to straight recapitulations in other early sonata movements. A short coda could then be dreamt up and discreetly tagged on. (I have heard such performances). Were this done all the time and the work widely performed I suspect it could become extremely popular. It is tender-sounding and deeply lyrical with a beautiful opening melody that is presented in octaves over a song-like accompaniment. This dreamy music then gives way to a transitional passage that seems like a slightly more active offshoot from the same idea but then takes flight most attractively before relaxing into a lovely lilting new melody. The development section begins as if it is going to floats through keys, as Schubert's developments often float through keys, but here does something different from what usually happens in the later sonatas - it introduces a beguiling new tune (sprung like the opening theme from three repeating notes) before doing so and then takes that tune with it on its journey back to the home key. Such a piece should not be hidden.

The turbulent first movement of the Piano Sonata in F minor, D625 is another fragment that also breaks off at the end of the development section. What a fabulous unfinished movement this is! It's based on a single idea - a falling fifth followed by a rise through a minor third (with a trill on the second note of the ascent). Schubert sometimes treats these elements dramatically, sometimes lyrically, always absorbingly. His ambitions were paying off, yet he still couldn't bring himself to follow them through to the end - which is a shame. The development section in particular, with its stunning modulations, is magnificent. The E major scherzo also displays plenty of ambition, being crammed with surprises. This movement's originality remains striking even today. Dramatic gestures, scintillating passages and gentler, more lyrical asides sit alongside each other here - and sudden modulations and quirky rhythms add yet more interest. There's no slow movement (though some performances add one). The passionate Finale storms in with a flurry of notes, though a gentle and a soothing melody follows close on its heels. An arresting new idea then appears, grown from the soothing melody's opening notes, but this too is soon stroked into gentleness. These conflicts are what we Schubertians think of when we think of his piano sonatas and here they are playing out compellingly in D625. 

Finally we come to the Piano Sonata in A major, D664. This is one any Schubert-lover will find it very hard to resist (not that they would try to). The first movement is full of lyricism and opens with a tune sure to warm your heart (especially its opening phrase). A lovely tuneful transition carries us to the second subject group (which for acute-eared listeners, defies 'convention' by beginning in the tonic and only gradually moving to the dominant.) The development section is short but worth closely attending to. It contains another of what were to become characteristic Schubert outbursts of shocking, surprising violence. It subsides quickly into quietness again but leaves its mark on the listener's imagination. The lead-back to the recapitulation is also beautifully judged. The coda is short but glows gently. The Andante has a tune I've found tends to stick around in my head for days after I've heard this sonata. The harmonies that accompany it are captivating. Keep listening to the harmonies and you'll hear Schubert moving between major and minor and modulating with all the instinctive genius we associate with the Schubert of the late instrumental masterpieces. The Finale wakes listeners from their dreams with a fit of giggles. The initially halting second theme is endearing and its treatments many and various. Together they help make a lively, cheerful sonata-form movement that is simply irresistible. This is the best of the early sonatas. 

What riches were to come in the eight great later sonatas though.

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