Monday, 1 May 2017

Programme Notes: Schubert piano works

Four Impromptus, (Op. 90), D. 899    Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

These 4 impromptus were composed in 1827 (a year before Schubert's untimely death), and published the same year; the first half of a set of 8. In that year Schubert composed, besides these exquisite short piano pieces, yet another failed opera (The Count of Gleichen), a superb German Mass, the E flat piano trio and the sombre song cycle "A Winter Journey". A year of great happiness and sadness; a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral, letters from 3 publishers asking to publish his compositions, a holiday in Upper Austria (said by Hutchings to be "perhaps the most happy time Schubert had ever known outside Vienna, or in it"). The first Impromptu, in C minor, is a set of variations on two themes; both slow. It ends peacefully in the major. The second, in E flat major, is in ternary form, but with a B-like coda (ABAB'). The A section is a moto-perpetuo of running triplets for the right hand; the contrasting B section drops into a minor key and, approaching the return, it intriguingly combines hints of the running triplet figure. The third, a peaceful, lyrical, reassuring piece in G flat major (6 flats), was reissued 30 years later by the same publisher in G major (1 sharp; for amateur players?)  The fourth Impromptu, in A-flat major, is perhaps the most famous of all Schubert's piano compositions. Its opening consists of cascading arpeggios in the right hand, nowadays usually trivialized by being played too fast in an attempt to bring out the left hand melody. It begins transiently in A-flat minor, though this is written as A-flat major with accidentals. It is in ternary form (ABA) with a calmer middle section. Was this set a sonata taken apart? Probably not, as Schubert numbered his next 4 impromptus 5,6,7,8. However, these 4 impromptus played in this order fit nicely together in mood and key.

Three Piano Pieces, (Op. 90), D. 946   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert died on 19th November 1828. Between March and the beginning of November he wrote: the C major String Quintet, 3 piano sonatas, 2 piano duets (includning the profound Fantasie dedicated to the young countess Caroline Esterhazy), these 3 Klavierstücke, The Shepherd on the Rock, the Schwannengesang songs, and 3 pieces of church music. It was doubtless the fugal writing of the latter that prompted Schubert to turn up on 4th Nov with friend Lanz on the doorstep of Simon Sechter's house for lessons in counterpoint. He missed the second lesson on 10th, and took to his bed 4 days later, fiddling still with the unsuccessful opera The Count of Gleichen. So, a year that saw written much of his sublimest music. These 3 Klavierstücke, written in May, were published (by Brahms) in 1868. It seems likely that there were to be 4, but it is not clear whether they were to be Impromptus or Moments Musicaux, nor even that they were conceived as a set. They are more complex in structure than the preceding set of impromptus (e.g. the 1st is in what could be called compound ternary form: A,B,A',C, D,E,A,B,A',C), they favour remote keys (e.g. 6 and 7 flats), continuous triplets and repeated semiquavers or tremolo effects; all typical of late Schubert. The first is in E minor and marked Allegro Assai. The second, in E major is Allegretto. The third is an Allegro in C major, in which it sounds as though the left hand is behind the beat, but it is really the right hand that is before the beat.

Sonata in D major, (Op. 53), D. 850   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

1. Allegro (vivace), 2. Andante (con moto), 3. Scherzo & Trio, 4. Rondo  (Allegro moderato)
After Schubert's despair in 1824, 1825 was a relatively happy year. He was solvent with Esterhazy guilders, and becoming known to publishers and the musical world of Vienna. He spent from May till September in the ravishing countryside of upper Austria with the retired opera singer Vogl who was a native of that area, moving from place to place, singing and charming as they went, welcomed and dined by the local big-wigs, and charmed in their turn by the young ladies. But it was not all sight-seeing and letter-writing, for Schubert composed his Great C major (9th) Symphony, the Walter Scott songs (which include his Ave Maria), and this D major sonata. For the last 3 weeks, paid for by a well-wisher, he and Vogl stayed at the famous health spa of Bad Gastein (therapeutically investigated by Paracelsus 300 years earlier); so this is called the Gasteiner Sonata. Schubert's composer brother Ferdinand, when offering to sell it to Diabelli after Schubert's death, distinguished it as a Grand Sonata; perhaps on account of its length. It is, however, relatively light hearted, and in many passages has an improvisatory feel. The 1st movement is vigorous; the long andante (in A major), dreamy rather than sombre or painful; the scherzo, rousing, with a sharply contrasted sweet trio section; the rondo almost cheeky in the nursery-like simplicity of its recurring theme.

No comments: