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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 and 6
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 and 6
In 1815 Franz Schubert committed his first piano sonatas to paper, starting a lifelong relationship with the form. A young seventeen-year-old composer set out to conquer the weighty heritage of the Viennese classics and to find his own musical language. Schubert appears here for the first time as a wanderer between worlds: the conscious struggle for his own musical legitimacy and his future intermediary rôle between the classical and the romantic, perhaps still unconsciously, as far as he was concerned, is now seen and heard. Surprisingly Schubert had already completed some string quartets and two symphonies, and had been able therefore to acquire experience in the so-called larger forms. The next due step in his development as a composer was to the piano sonata.
The particular charm in these early sonatas is often of an elusive character that reveals to the listener the composer’s uncertainty as to how these experiments will end. Many of these early attempts by Schubert remained as fragments or survived incomplete. Happily this is not the case with the sonatas from 1815 to 1817 here included. Only the final movement, D. 346, which is shown by analysis of the paper to belong to the 1815 Sonata in C major, D. 279, breaks off abruptly after 231 bars. The remaining movements are complete and in order. In the case of the Sonata in E major, D. 459, of 1816 we meet the very interesting rather unusual problem of five-movement form. The hitherto usual title of Fünf Klavierstücke (Five Piano Pieces) certainly does not come from Schubert himself but was added posthumously by the publisher, probably to increase the chances of sales. Since we now do not have the complete autograph of this sonata but only copies, the conception of the work must be subject to speculation. Certainly it was possible for a great musical spirit like Schubert, who was always searching for new and apt solutions to sonata problems, to take the step of extending the then usual four-movement form to one of five movements, especially since he was later to do this again, for example in the Trout Quintet, D. 667. That the movement standing second represents no scherzo, following its title, but rather is written in the conventional sonata-form is beyond question; whether the added title ‘Scherzo’ came from Schubert himself is uncertain. A real scherzo is found in the fourth movement of this sonata. While the first four movements are rounded and self-contained, the finale has the direction, exceptionally rare for Schubert, of Allegro patetico, presenting a puzzle to the performer. The often lightly scored, very rugged piano movement hardly offers a mood of suffering and pathos. There is a lack of strong drama and only towards the end of the movement does Schubert come, in the coda, to an urgent onrush of sound. Generally in both D. 279 and D. 459 the piano-writing is unwieldy and unpianistic in character - it was Schubert’s intention to translate absolute music directly onto the piano, music that largely recalls a string quartet or orchestral movement. More than in later years Schubert thinks in these early works in a completely unpianistic way. Many sequences of hand movements, awkward leaps and almost unnatural octave passages betray the still rather inexperienced pianist, in no way a great virtuoso. The piano must here be understood partly as a fortuitous available means of expression for Schubert’s inspirations and ideas.
These ideas, as for example in the first movement of the Sonata, D. 279, with its ambitious intentions, often give rise to the writing of a large-scale, powerful symphony for the piano in the style of Beethoven. A solid thematic basis, coupled with a readiness to think in orchestral colours, is found here, though still with one or two uneven modulations or changes that are rather too deliberate. Already the first movement of D. 459 is further developed, more rounded, intimate, already an example of Schubert’s developing lyricism. The form is reduced and economically employed, and Schubert comes openly to the heart of his musical statement.
The slow middle movements of both sonatas plunge into quite a different world. In them from the beginning a wonderful feeling of relaxation and rest dominate, an enigmatic early maturity in expression and a remarkable flair for timing and for the organic build-up and relaxation of tension. Schubert’s whole youthful lightheartedness here comes prominently into play. The briskly moving Menuetto in D. 279, like the Scherzo and Trio in D. 459, in which they follow the usual conventions of form, in strict academic style, can, however, for a brief moment contradict this impression in the very charming and elegant trio sections.
The most artistically developed example included here is, finally, the Sonata in E minor, D. 566/506, written in 1817. Here too the source is not clear. Once there existed a complete three-movement autograph, of which the first and third movements, thanks to a careful copy, are preserved. The work was printed posthumously, however, in single movements in various places and at different times. The completion in four movements with the contemporaneous Rondo in E major, D. 506, can be justified through various circumstances, and is the reason for the inclusion of the work here. The first movement of the sonata has great thematic weight and depth of expression, the dynamic directions are more differentiated and numerous than earlier, and also the technical demands on the player are more pianistic and refined. In the second movement (Allegretto), a marvellously tender song without words, and in the fourth movement, D. 506, (the apt direction ‘moto’ coming from the first edition) Schubert ventures into the realm of pianistic virtuosity affording the pianist opportunities for sheer joy in the performance. The music gains extraordinarily thereby in radiance and liveliness, and is playful and relaxed. In the Scherzo too one finds this new generosity and control; the distant tonality of A flat major of this movement in an E major/E minor work is yet a further example of the young Schubert’s joy in experiment.
Gottlieb Wallisch English version by Keith Anderson
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SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 and 6