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Program Notes: Schubertiade Performance One

Sonata in C minor D958

Of the three last sonatas Schubert wrote just before his death in 1828, it is the Sonata in C minor that most reveals him as Beethovenian, not just in his choice of key, synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, but more tellingly in the restless energy and propulsive forward drive that characterizes its four contrasting movements.

The Allegro first movement begins boldly with a series of punchy gestures clearly patterned after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. When the turmoil of this serious opening material subsides, a more familiar personality emerges, that of Schubert the keyboard colourist, painting magical moments of calm and stability, anchored in pedal points that drum reassuringly from the bass or ring bell-like in the treble. These, in turn, give way to more active sections alternating between a spirit of the dance and worrying signals of alarm, a typically Schubertian dichotomy of moods.

Where the spirit of Beethoven moves most freely is in the development section, in which he gnaws away at small motives, like a dog worrying a bone. Eventually, he abandons all pretense of melody in a free chromatic fantasy that leads with conviction to the return of the movement’s opening chords in the recapitulation. Beethovenian, as well, is the ruminative coda that recalls material from the development at the movement’s close.

The second movement is a rarity in Schubert: a real Adagio. But the mood of repose and elegiac tone offered by the opening melody is twice interrupted by thoughts of a more anxious nature, the first interruption fretting its concern in a pattern of pulsing triplets, the second breaking into full-on contrapuntal discord. Much about this movement, especially the triplet figurations, is reminiscent of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.

The sonata’s third movement is a Menuetto, but it appears strangely conflicted as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. The extreme irregularity of its phrase lengths makes toe-tapping of any extended length impossible, and its thoughtful pauses point more to the Romantic-era rhetoric of inner doubt than to the assured pose of Classical-era court ritual.

Where Schubert unleashes his inner playful demon with wicked glee is in the last movement Allegro, a moto perpetuo of considerable length in tarantella rhythm. When hearing this movement it is hard not to summon up the picture of a thrilling ride on horseback over hill and dale. Something of the exhilaration of the ride is available to the pianist, as well, in the extraordinarily effective hand-crossing textures that Schubert creates, with melodic fragments tossed wildly between the treble and bass registers over the pounding patter of horse’s hooves in the mid-range.

Fantasie in C major for Violin & Piano D934

Who knew that Schubert could write a virtuoso showpiece for violin? It was in early 1828 that the young Czech virtuoso Josef Slavík (1806-1833) was to appear at a concert in Vienna along with Schubert’s friend, the pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet (1801-1881). Slavík’s dazzling virtuosity was rumoured to be on a par with that of Paganini while Von Bocklet was creating quite a stir in the capital with his keyboard fantasias. Schubert’s decision to write a display vehicle for both of them in the form of a free fantasy must have been an easy one.

The Fantasie is laid out in seven continuous sections, built around variations on Schubert’s own well-known setting of the love poem Sei mir gegrüsst! by German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The poem expresses the yearning of a young lover separated from the kisses of his beloved and the work evokes these tender emotions in its introduction, opening in a sonic haze of piano tremolos in imitation of orchestral strings, or perhaps even the thrum of the Hungarian cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer. Against this timbral backdrop an endearing melody of long-held violin notes emerges as trills burble up from the lower regions of the piano and then sparkle from the high register.

A second introductory section is more animated and dancelike; its crush notes give it a tangy Hungarian gypsy flavour, although the constant imitative interchange between the instruments gives it something of a sly, knowing quality, as well.

The centrepiece of the work is the third section, which arrives with a simple statement in the piano of the gently lilting lied melody with its languorous chromatic turns of phrase, emblematic of the lover’s sighs. Three bravura variations in the style of Paganini ensue and, after a brief reminiscence of the theme, the work closes with a vigorous Presto exclamation point.

The composer makes shockingly effective use of the high register in both instruments to create a dazzling array of ear-tickling textures. So dazzling, in fact, that admirers of his more sedate ‘Viennese’ style might well ask, “Who are you, and what have you done with Franz Peter Schubert?”

String Quintet in C D934

Schubert’s decision to write a string quintet in the last year of his life with two cellos, instead of the more normal two violas used by Mozart and Beethoven in their quintets, was not entirely unprecedented. Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) himself a cellist, had done so before, but had written the extra cello part relatively high in the range, i.e., as a viola in all but name. Schubert, by contrast, makes full use of the extra cello’s baritone timbre to add a dark but richly burnished lustre to the lower regions of the ensemble, and in so doing strides boldly towards a symphonic ideal of sound in this chamber genre.

This symphonic ideal is evident in the many passages of throbbing repeated notes that keep the string sonority ringing in your ears while important melodic events are presented in other instruments. This ideal plays out as well in his varied treatment of instrumental sub-groups as orchestral ‘choirs’ that parallel the established division of orchestral forces into strings, winds, brass and percussion.

That the qualities of pure sound are uppermost in his mind is evident from the way in which the work begins. Schubert offers us a static representation, without a regular rhythmic pulse, of the structuring harmonies that will undergird his roughly textured first theme, the eventual arrival of which is made to seem all the more disruptive by contrast with the placid opening bars. Where the listener is especially grateful for the expansion of musical forces in this quintet is in the glorious second theme, presented in a cello duet with an almost Brahmsian luxuriance of phrasing, its gently swaying melodic line in 6ths exquisitely perfumed with a sentimentality and sophistication uniquely Viennese. The long development section is kept coherent by Schubert’s skillful alternation of instrumental groupings amid which the return of the opening material in the recapitulation materializes as if by magic.

The slow second movement, like that of the C minor Sonata, is a real Adagio. It presents a triptych of contrasting moods with two otherworldly outer sections bookending a middle section of dramatic (almost melodramatic) intensity of feeling, with gasping, off-beat accompaniment figures fretting anxiously between a nervously active bass line and a urgently pleading melody in the first violin. The emotional range of this movement is astonishing.

An unheard-of volume of sound explodes from the 3rd movement scherzo, that begins with 9-voice chords made all the more resonant by the use of open strings (C – G – D). The sounds of hunting horns and galloping hooves abound in this movement, contrasting starkly with the subdued, elegiac tone of the middle section trio.

The work is rounded out with a sonata-rondo dance finale of distinctly Hungarian flavour with a heavy peasant stamp, expressed in thumping offbeat accents, major-minor tonal ambivalence, a race-to-the-finish accelerando, and a final ‘smudgy’ D-flat-to-C crush-note ending that Brahms would later appropriate for the final bar of his F minor Quintet scherzo.

Donald G. Gíslason

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