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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 and 13 / Wanderer Fantasy (Nebolsin)
Acclaimed for his Naxos recordings of music by Chopin, Liszt, Dohnányi and Rachmaninov, Eldar Nebolsin here fulfills a heartfelt ambition to record important piano works by another great Romantic composer, Franz Schubert, for the label. The passion and pathos of the two sonatas, with their song-like melodies and adventurous harmonies, set the scene for one of Schubert’s most powerful solo piano pieces, the Wanderer Fantasy, a work so technically demanding that Schubert himself is reported to have exclaimed ‘the devil may play it!’. Based on his popular song Der Wanderer, the Fantasy is virtually a four-movement sonata in its own right and a path-breaking masterpiece of the piano literature.
By Charles Timbrell
By Alan Becker
American Record Guide
By Geoffrey Molyneux
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Sonatas in A major and A minor • Wanderer Fantasy
Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and spent the greater part of his short life in the city. His parents had settled in Vienna, his father moving there from Moravia in 1783 to join his schoolmaster brother at a school in the suburb of Leopoldstadt and marrying in 1785 a woman who had her origins in Silesia and was to bear him fourteen children. Franz Schubert was the twelfth of these and the fourth to survive infancy. He began to learn the piano at the age of five, with the help of his brother Ignaz, twelve years his senior, and three years later started to learn the violin, while serving as a chorister at Liechtental church. From there he applied, on the recommendation of Antonio Salieri, to join the Imperial Chapel, into which he was accepted in October 1808, as a chorister now allowed to study at the Akademisches Gymnasium, boarding at the Stadtkonvikt, his future education guaranteed.
During his schooldays Schubert formed friendships that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. After his voice broke in 1812, he was offered, as expected, a scholarship to enable him to continue his general education, but he chose, instead, to train as a primary school teacher, while devoting more time to music and, in particular, to composition, the art to which he was already making a prolific contribution. In 1815 he was able to join his father as an assistant teacher, but showed no great aptitude or liking for the work. Instead he was able to continue the earlier friendships he had formed at school and form new acquaintances. His meeting in 1816 with Franz von Schober allowed him to accept an invitation to live in the latter’s apartment, an arrangement that relieved him of the necessity of earning his keep in the schoolroom. In August 1817 he returned home again, when room was needed by Schober for his dying brother, and resumed his place, for the moment, in the classroom. The following summer he spent in part at Zseliz in Hungary as music tutor to the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta, before returning to Vienna to lodge with a new friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, an arrangement that continued until near the end of 1820, after which Schubert spent some months living alone, now able to afford the necessary rent.
By this period of his life it seemed that Schubert was on the verge of solid success as a composer and musician. Thanks to his friends, in particular the older singer Johann Michael Vogl, a school-friend of Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr, Leopold von Sonnleithner and others, his music was winning an audience. There was collaboration with Schober on a new opera, later rejected by the Court Opera, but in other respects his name was becoming known as a composer, beyond his immediate circle. He lodged once again with the Schobers in 1822 and 1823 and it was at this time that his health began to deteriorate, through a venereal infection that was then incurable. This illness overshadowed the remaining years of his life and was the cause of his early death. It has been thought a direct consequence of the dissolute way of life into which Schober introduced him and which for a time alienated him from some of his former friends. The following years brought intermittent returns to his father’s house, since 1818 in the suburb of Rossau, and a continuation of social life that often centred on his own musical accomplishments and of his intense activity as a composer. In February 1828 the first public concert of his music was given in Vienna, an enterprise that proved financially successful, and he was able to spend the summer with friends, including Schober, before moving, in September, to the suburb of Wieden to stay with his brother Ferdinand, in the hope that his health might improve. Social activities continued, suggesting that he was unaware of the imminence of his death, but at the end of October he was taken ill at dinner and in the following days his condition became worse. He died on 19 November.
During Schubert’s final years publishers had started to show an interest in his work. He had fulfilled commissions for the theatre and delighted his friends with songs, piano pieces and chamber music. It was with his songs, above all, that Schubert won a lasting reputation and to this body of work that he made a contribution equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity, with settings of poems by major and minor poets, a reflection of literary interests of the period. His gift for the invention of an apt and singable melody is reflected in much else that he wrote.
In 1817 Schubert seemed to be showing a particular interest in piano sonatas, writing six such works, of which two were left incomplete. Written in March, the Sonata in A minor, D. 537, is the first of the 1817 sonatas, in order of composition. It opens with a phrase that is answered by upper register arpeggios, with the initial figuration providing a motif that finds a place in the transition to the subsidiary theme, which opens in the unexpected key of F major. The end of the exposition of this sonata form movement makes use of a harmonic and rhythmic figure that proves of use in the central development section, after which the first theme reappears in the key of D minor, with A major established in the second subject and A minor restored in the coda. The E major Allegretto has more of a song about its principal theme. Schubert’s adventurous sense of harmony allows a related secondary theme in C major and the return of the opening theme in F major, with further exploitation of a repeated rhythmic figure before the eventual return of the opening theme and key. An ascending A minor scale, gently answered, summons the attention at the start of the final Allegro vivace, a movement prodigal in musical ideas and leading to a final A major, stressed only in the last chord of the sonata.
Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 664, published posthumously in 1829 as Opus 120, has been plausibly dated to 1819, the year of the Trout Quintet. In that summer Schubert had accompanied Vogl on his annual excursion to his native Steyr, where Schubert’s meeting with Sylvester Paumgartner led to the composition of the quintet. It has been suggested that the sonata, which seems to reflect the same delight in the Styrian countryside, is to be identified with the sonata written for the pianist Josefine von Koller, whom he met on his visit to Steyr. The first movement, with its song-like principal theme, breathes the air of the country, its serenity only briefly interrupted by the short development section. The D major Andante opens with some harmonic ambiguity, inplicit in the principal theme, but any passing sadness is dispelled in the final Allegro.
The Fantasy in C major, D. 760, known as the Wanderer Fantasy, dates from October and November 1822, the period that also saw the composition of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The Fantasy was commissioned by a well-to-do amateur pianist, Emanuel Karl Liebenberg, a pupil of Hummel, and makes greater technical demands on a performer than the sonatas, as Schubert himself recognised. The four movements are linked together, opening with a tempestuous Allegro con fuoco, its initial chords in Schubert’s familiar dactylic rhythm. At the heart of the whole work is the Adagio that forms the second movement, its theme, the subject of a series of increasingly complex variations, taken from Der Wanderer, a setting of verses by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck. The song was written in 1816 and on its later publication, in 1821, won considerable contemporary popularity. The C sharp minor Adagio leads to an A flat major Presto, a scherzo movement, capped, after a dramatic pause, by the final C major Allegro, recalling the opening of the whole Fantasy, now treated fugally.
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SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 and 13 / Wander...