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Program Notes: Schubertiade Perfomance Two

Fantasie in F minor for piano four hands D940

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.

But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.

Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, modally speaking – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.

The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overturelike first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other’s phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.

The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a browknitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.

Sonata in B flat major D960

Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in 1828 a scant few months before his death, exemplifies in one single work the full range of his gifts as lyric melodist, serious musical dramatist, and refined exponent of the light, dance-besotted musical style of Vienna.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is typically generous in its bounty of themes. It opens with a softly whispered melody, humbly small in range and accompanied by a repeated pedal tone in the left hand, like a pulsing human heartbeat. This opening theme has a sweet yearning quality that gives it an ineffable, almost nostalgic charm, urging it to burst more fully into song, which it soon does. A second theme introduces a tentative note of worry, but Schubert’s constant harmonic wavering between the major and minor modes prevents the emotional tone from becoming downcast. A third theme of a triadic stamp scampers over the full range of the keyboard, in both hands, to re-establish a more directly buoyant emotional tone, disturbed only by a recurring low trill in the left hand that acts as a sectional marker within the movement. The development is where all the drama lies, as Schubert passes his melodic material through a harmonic colour wheel, building to an intense climax that acts as a rare moment of sonic emphasis in the centre of what is, essentially, a movement of delicate shades of nuance.

Much more starkly dramatic is the Andante sostenuto slow movement which features an introspective melody in the mid-range of the keyboard, surrounded by sonic echoes, both above and below, implying that this lonely plaintive voice is pleading its mournful case in a vast, but empty enclosure. It is hard not to think of the more militant middle section as an attempt to take heart, an attempt that inevitably fails as the opening mood returns to conclude the movement.

The third movement scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza, is indeed ‘delicate’ if judged by the standards of Beethoven’s rough-house humour. More typically Viennese in its subtlety, it generates good-natured humour from its frequent changes of register and twinkling grace notes. A steady interchange of material between the hands creates the impression of a dialogue between two real musical ‘characters’. The contrasting trio in the minor mode is much more sedate, sitting put in the middle of the keyboard and shifting its weight around in gentle syncopations.

Still in a humorous frame of mind, Schubert begins his rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a mock ‘mistake’. Starting off in the minor mode, he then ‘remembers’ that he wants to be in a major key and makes a mid-course correction at the end of the first phrase. This joke of changing dramatic masks from the serious to the comedic is played out frequently during the movement, with intervening episodes of songful respite in between. This is a finale filled with congenial joking of the most sophisticated kind, created by a true Viennese pianistic ‘sit-down comic’.

Trio in B flat major for piano, violin and cello D898

The popular image of Schubert as the composer of cheerful lyrical melodies, spontaneously extending out to heavenly length, is given ample confirmation in his B flat Trio D898. Despite being completed in the last year of Schubert’s life, this large-scale work displays none of the dark, foreboding tone of other works of this period in which the approach of death can be intuited on the horizon. Rather, it radiates a healthy emotional flow of musical sentiments, passing from an alert and fully engaged first movement through a serenely voluptuous second movement, and ending in a pair of movements smitten with the spirit of the dance.

The opening Allegro moderato presents us with a triadic fanfare theme in the strings over a pulsing cushion of harmonic support in the piano, ushering in the mood of spirited resolve and bright-eyed optimism that will dominate the movement as a whole. Pert punctuations of dotted rhythm and jolly figurations of triplets add a bouncing quality to this theme, summoning up the image of a bracing walk in the park on a pleasant spring morning. The generous, widearching intervals of the songful second theme, introduced by the cello, only add to the feeling that all’s right with the world and a hot cup of tea awaits at home. The development section takes its job seriously, chewing over important phrases from both themes with a sense of dramatic import but always arriving at a happy resolution of its thematic concerns.

The heavy lifting of the work thus completed, Schubert gives us a bit of naptime in a Brahmsian lullaby of a slow movement, Andante un poco mosso. The cello takes on major melodic duties in this movement, cooing with its fellow turtle-dove, the violin, in a cheek-to-cheek duet of mutual admiration that a more florid central episode only serves to intensify.

Schubert’s third movement scherzo lies halfway between the sedateness of the minuet from which this genre developed and the mischievous joke that it became. Its quick, but still danceable, repeated notes harken back more to the folk dancing idiom of the Austrian Ländler than to the stiff reserve of the courtly minuet. There is no doubt about the trio, however. It is a straight-up waltz (and seemingly a forerunner to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz) with the piano’s echoing “pah-pah” in support of a reliable one-to-a-bar “oom” in the strings.

The last movement rondo, Allegro vivace, is even more dancelike, glinting with numerous stylistic influences from Viennese popular music. It features a delicately skipping principal theme opposed by a mock-serious thematic challenger in strong unisons, with lots of frolicsome scampering in dotted rhythms and joyous triplets filling in the landscape in between. Adding to the light tone of this movement is Schubert’s practice of treating the piano largely as a single-line instrument, chuckling merrily away in unisons or octaves up in the high register alongside the violin.

Donald G. Gíslason

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