Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Piano Sonatas of Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Integral Edition Series

Schubert at the Piano, by Gustav Klimt
Sometimes we all just need somewhere to go, somewhere to take our minds away from the common grind of everyday concerns (or perhaps in my case to recover from another Wagner encounter). One place we have long advocated is to have recourse to these often quite surprising compositions by one of the greatest among “classical” music composers of what today some prefer to call the “First Vienna School” as a way to group together Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others; the “classical” composers.

Any of Franz Schubert's piano sonatas are longer than any Mozart or Haydn would have considered manageable, and even most Beethoven sonatas are not nearly as long. If as a pianist, you decide to take the plunge into any of them, be prepared for some moderate to difficult work, but a uniquely rewarding experience of pianism for your efforts.

Schubert's sonatas were not nearly as well known as Beethoven's or Mozart's during their lifetimes. Beethoven's all have opus numbers and dates of first publication, which of course meant that they were influential on Schubert who was 27 years younger than Beethoven, in whose shadow Schubert's music grew in gratitude and tribute. Schubert's sonatas should be better known, but we are confronting a few interesting problems regarding them that do not afflict the works of the previous classical masters.

We'll begin with those sonatas published during Schubert's lifetime (and some not) following the order in the first "integral" edition of Schubert's sonatas by Breitkopf and Härtel, published in 1888, available in the USA in a reprint from Dover. You'll notice as we go along that some of the links referenced refer to sonatas with different numbering systems. Nevertheless the order in which they are presented here is the oldest standard numbering system used for them and we should probably stick to it from now on.

What this will mean is that after this “integral” set, and there are fifteen of these sonatas, other sonatas will turn up which may have been written earlier than the first one in this series. That should not matter, the first Schubert sonata would hereafter be the E Major written around his 18th birthday in 1815. At the time of its writing, Beethoven, always a model for Schubert, was in his forties, musically very active in that crucial year which brought an end to Napoleon's military ambitions.

Some links, where they contain the performance of an entire sonata, are under the title of the sonata. At other times, links are found under the various headings for each movement. The second group of posthumously published sonatas will follow in a future article.


1815: “Late Winter” and “Late Summer” from the composer's youth

Sonata #1 in E Major (February, 1815) D. 157 


Schubert was just 18 years old when he wrote this, and since others would follow this same year we might dub this the “Late Winter” sonata to keep track of it, indeed there are references to slips and slides in the first movement. It's certainly a demanding first sonata, more intricate and nuanced than Mozart's, Haydn's or Beethoven's early sonatas, but it derives from all of their stylistic contributions to the form, and of course in the city where they all lived and knew so well; Vienna, the late 18th and early 19th century capital of the multi-cultural Hapsburg Austrian Empire, not really a melting pot society, hence it was gradually disintegrating under the weight of war debt and the effects of war. Under the circumstances, this work is an extraordinary gem. But then again, they all are.
2. Andante

Arcadi Volodos, piano (Rec: live in Amsterdam, 8/18/2001)

Sonata #2 in C Major (September, 1815) D. 279

This is a companion sonata to the previous one, and composed later his 18th year; hence our calling this one the “Late Summer” sonata. In this performance, the 4th movement is a presumption on Noël Lee's part. It is not printed in the standard Breitkopf and Härtel edition (which is available in the USA published by Dover) however it does appear in the Henle Verlag URTEXT edition of Schubert's sonatas, which does not follow the order of the “integral” edition; these sonatas open the third volume of their three volume set and after the Sonata D. 279, they print the Allegretto -fragment D. 346. However, and it does say this on his recording, this is an unfinished fragment which Noël Lee completed. You can get a copy of it in the Henle edition but completed by Paul Badura-Skoda so in particular the ending will be different. This Allegretto was written supposedly sometime in 1816 when Schubert would have been 19 years old.

2. Andante
3. MENUETTO, Allegro vivace - Trio
4. [Allegretto] Allegretto (fragment D. 346 C Major)
(completed by Noël Lee)

Noël Lee, piano (Rec: rare Vinyl LP - stereophonique - made in France, recorded 1970. Piano is a Steinway.

1817: Mozart and Beethoven revisited

Sonata #3 in A Flat Major (May, 1817) D. 557

This sonata, though perhaps less demanding than the previous two, is Schubert's extension of some essentially Mozart inspired ideas; pretty phrases rather than melodies, punctuated by episodic figures. In the year it was written this would be largely looking back to composers who inspired him the most. He is also extending the range of these same classical devices, showing them in different lights than these composers could possibly have imagined.

One reason Schubert is important to our greater understanding of this “classical” music, is his contribution to the emotional range available through very subtle shading of tone leading, suspensions, tension, silence, all kinds of things that are usually extremely subtle and often profound in ways unachieved by the previous classical masters. Mostly one is surprised by this unique harmonizing element that is particularly Schubert's voice. Indeed, it sometimes comes as a shock to recognize that someone as well known as Franz Schubert is so deservedly well regarded for their contributions to music.

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante
3. Allegro

Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) , piano.  In this set of Schubert sonatas, this one is listed as Sonata #5.

Sonata #4 in e minor (June 1817) D. 566 & D. 506

Much of the basic technique for this sonata stems from Beethoven, yet Schubert has here, and with all of these sonatas, clearly found his own voice, singing much of the time. There are problems getting the music together for this sonata. Only its first movement appears in the integral (Dover) edition. The “complete” sonata is available in the Henle Verlag URTEXT edition, Band III as Sonata #5.

This sonata has four movements, and they are in the order listed, with the last part of D. 506 serving as a rondo finale. The full D. 506 includes a preparatory Adagio. I could find no performances of this part of this sonata on line (why am I surprised?) .Perhaps I'll get the Adagio and at least read through the complete D. 506. In any case it was composed along with this sonata and good copies are around to prove it. The Op. 145 pieces were published posthumously.

The rest of it was played at a live concert by Sviatoslav Richter in 1964. I've linked the movements as they belong in sequence rather than as Richter plays them; he plays 3. Scherzo then concludes with 2. Allegretto.

1. Moderato 
2. Allegretto 
3. SCHERZO, Allegro vivace - Trio
4. RONDO, Allegretto (Op. 145 #2 : D. 506 B)

SviatoslavRichter (1915-1997), piano. He was 49 at the time of this performance.

Sonata #5 in B Major (August, 1817) Op. 147 D. 575

There are some mysteries in this sonata, almost anticipations of Mendelssohn and Schumann, Schubert looking on into the future, singing at least four distinct themes in the first movement's exposition, extending the form as far as he can. He's just 20 and has already written a lot in this same vein, but the shading in this sonata is different. The integral edition (Dover) includes the complete score; all 4 movements. Henle Verlag has it in Band I listed as Sonata #3. The late great American pianist, Eunice Norton in her 1992 performance certainly captures much of this music's poetic charm in this beautiful performance.

1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante
3. SCHERZO, Allegretto - Trio 
4. Allegro giusto

EuniceNorton (1908-2005), pianist. She was 84 when she played this, a remarkable achievement and legacy!

[13 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.] 

Sonata #6 in a minor (1817) Op. 164 D. 537

This is one of the more recognizable early Schubert sonatas. Yes, it derives plenty of inspiration from Beethoven, but also oddly predicts some of the directions pianism would be going, things Grieg might be doing fifty years later. The second movement will have you thinking of perhaps the same theme Schubert uses to make a grand finale for one of his later sonatas (#14 in this series). Yes, Schubert apparently really liked this little song and used it in two of his piano sonatas.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli played this as part of his 7 April 1991 concert in Lugano, Switzerland. The piano was certainly a Steinway D. The entire thing appears as close to how he plays it in the integral edition. Henle presents this one as Sonata #1 at the beginning of Band I.

1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Allegretto quasi Andantino

3. Allegro vivace

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
(1920–1995), pianist. 72 years old when he played this heroic performance.

Sonata #7 in E Flat Major (1817) Op. 122 D. 568


Among Schubert's most popular and recognizable sonatas, the opening phrase reminds oddly of the beginning of the commercial Christmas song, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Many great pianists have played it. Wilhelm Kempff played this one and in his set he has it as the 7th sonata. He repeats back to the development of the first movement, which does not appear in the score in either the integral edition (Dover) or the Henle URTEXT edition, but it really doesn't matter. Henle Verlag has this one in Band I as Sonata #2. There is a transcription of this same sonata minus the 3rd movement transcribed to D Flat Major. It's theorized that Schubert wrote the 3ed movement at some later date.

1. Allegro moderato 

2. Andante molto
3. MENUETTO, allegretto - Trio 

4. Allegro moderato

1823-1825: A Young Man's Recognition of Mortality

Sonata #8 in a minor (September, 1823) Op. 143 D. 784

This justly famous sonata was written after one of Schubert's near misses with death the previous year. He was only 26 but had never been very fit or in good health. A fate theme of a kind appears in the first movement and is met with sublime resignation. In this live recording of one of his 1960's Carnegie Hall performances, Sviatoslav Richter chooses a tempo some of us would consider way too slow for the Andante, but by choosing this slower tempo, the piano has more time to sing and this performance is a stand-out because this slower tempo allows for each voice in Schubert's embellished almost orchestral writing to find its natural place in the musical tapestry. The finale has the distinction of forming a setting for one of Schubert's most tender songs, where besides its uses in the main sonata allegro form, it is repeated within what would be an extended coda similar to the finale of a piano concerto.

To me, this sonata is Schubert's answer to his impending mortality, for after this his rate of composition, as if he hasn't been writing non-stop for years, if anything accelerates, as if he knows he hasn't long and will nonetheless function as music's willing amanuensis, faithfully taking down, much as Mozart did, and leaving nothing out, all the great music he would write until he was unable to continue. Whatever hardships Schubert suffered in his brief life, some things become apparent after hearing this sonata; Schubert met his fate with resigned faith and whether he knew love in the grandest sense or not, that embedded song in the last movement certainly indicates that he knew love from someone, even if it had only been from his mother.

1. Allegro giusto
[A. Exposition] 
[B. Development, Recapitulation]
2. Andante 
3. Allegro vivace

Sonata #9 in a minor (1825) Op. 42 D. 845


Companions in a way, the two a minor sonatas. Wilhelm Kempff's performance is certainly a good standard one, particularly regarding dynamics and balance, rather peppy in fact in the first movement. One wouldn't really like to push the envelopes too far in any of these pieces or one gets strange results. Careful observance of dynamic markings helps greatly in the turning of phrases, in the case of Schubert often starting in one hand and ending in another. There is often a tremendous tendency to overplay Schubert when the music itself certainly contains enough weight in and of itself and should never be overplayed. It is much better to get oneself to sing through the playing of all of this music, as indeed did the young composer himself when he was in the process of writing it all down. The theme and variations second movement is one of those quintessential Schubert delights.

1. Moderato  

2. Andante pocomoto
3. SCHERZO, Allegro vivace - Trio, Un poco più lento 

4. RONDO: Allegro vivace [There are some problems with the beginning of this recording that soon clear up]

Wilhelm Kempff, piano.
(In this set of Schubert sonatas, this one is listed as Sonata #16)

Sonata #10 in A Major (Summer, 1819) Op. 120 D. 664


A sheer delight! This popular Schubert sonata is here played by the Austrian pianist Ingrid Haebler with some rare insights. Although it comes here in order of publication, this sonata is out of sequence and precedes the last two.  It is warm and sunny in comparison to many of the moods of the last two.

1. Allegro moderato 

2. Andante
3. Allegro

Ingred Haebler (1929- ) This recording was made in 1969 when she was 49. It is also listed as Sonata #13. 

[13 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.]

The Last Five: 1825-1828

Sonata #11 “Gasteiner” in D Major (August, 1825 at Bad Gastein) Op. 53 D. 850

With a burst of exuberance, this sonata begins with one of the most idiomatically complex and manic demonstrations yet of Schubert's art at the age of 28 or ten years since the first sonata in this series. I don't expect too many people will want to rush out there and try to learn this piece because it is very difficult. To hear it to best advantage, you need someone with the power and depth of a Sviatoslav Richter. The second movement takes you into some very unexpected places including rhythmic elements which must be carefully observed. The theme that is embroidered this time is almost anthem like in its warm solemnity. Richter's read is quite moving. The final two movements are almost exhausting in their whimsical character. You've never heard a classical piano sonata quite like this one. Perhaps more than any of his previous sonatas, this one establishes Schubert's often eccentric style.

1. Allegro vivace
2. Con moto
3. SCHERZO, Allegro vivace - Trio
4. RONDO: Allegro moderato

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997), piano. Referenced as Sonata #17. This recording probably dates from 1956 when he was in his early forties.

[12 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.] 
[1 June, 14: Sergey Koudriakov's performance:
1. Allegro vivace
2. Con Moto [1] ... [2] 

Sonata #12 in G Major (October, 1826) Op. 78 D. 894

Serene, perhaps in the way the last sonata had been tumultuous, let's hear the way Claudio Arrau played it; subtlety itself. The slower tempos allow the piano more time to sing and that should be the abiding emphasis here. Schubert, ever the singer of songs, is at his best here. Never overplay any of this as it will ruin the beautiful flow of mood throughout.

1. Molto moderato e cantabile
2. Andante
3. MENUETTO, Allegro moderato - Trio
4. Allegretto

Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), piano. This is listed as Sonata #18 in his last session recording

[13 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.]
[15 Dec, 13: Alfred Brendel's performance here.]
[26 Dec, 13: Radu Lupu's performance here.]

Sonata #13 in c minor (September, 1828) D. 958


This sonata written just two months before his death might just as well be linked to Beethoven's Op. 13 “Pathetique” sonata in the same key, though Schubert rarely gets himself as worked up and there's plenty of contrapuntal writing pitting his endless song against tougher episodic elements, the repetition of chords varying tonal colouring being ever present. But Schubert's subtleties in every detail mark a clear departure from his mentor's style. This sonata concludes with an impressive, no stunning tarantella, as only Schubert would have rendered it, with a deep pause at the heart of it and devilish piano trickery throughout. Murray Perahia is absolute master of this music, his performance is brilliant throughout and his interpretations definitely worth emulating.

1. Allegro  

2. Adagio
3. MENUETTO, Allegro - Trio  

4. Allegro [Tarantella!]

MurrayPerahia (1947- ), piano. This featured performance was recorded 'live' at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 22 June 2003 (56 years old). 

[13 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.] 
[15 Dec, 13: Alfred Brendel's performance here.]
[17 Dec, 13: Wilhelm Kempff's performance here.]

Sonata #14 in A Major (September, 1828) D. 959

Form has been revolutionized with this sonata and composers (even modern ones) please take note: In the first movement, Schubert has embedded a development section inside the exposition (and in the recapitulation too)! The development section for the whole first movement is a rhapsody allowing him to sing his heart out! I like Maurizio Pollini's performance of this sonata, especially of the Andantino, which contains Schubert's most impassioned (and on some level even angry) outburst, surrounded by a bitter sweet lullaby, a lullaby for the dying perhaps? The finale is an immense sonata allegro using the same song that was used in the 2nd movement of Sonata #6 in this series, as its primary and recurring theme. Schubert stretches the form in this movement; there is a lot of rhapsodising, developments, unexpected continuations and you want it that way, a heart rending never ending melody.

1. Allegro
2. Andantino
3. SCHERZO, Allegro vivace - Trio, Un poco più lento
4. RONDO, Allegretto

Maurizio Pollini (1942- ), piano. Pollini was 41 when this performance was recorded in December, 1983 at the Musikverein, Großer Saal, in Vienna. 

[12 Dec, 13: Christian Zacharias' performance here.]

Sonata#15 in B Flat Major (September, 1828) Op. Post. D. 960


This piano sonata, along with the previous two, was written barely two months before Schubert died. The English pianist Clifford Curzon delivers a slightly faster pulsed version for the first movement than is customary and I like the improvement; the long phrased themes float over the chords. The second movement is what? Is it his own dirge? Does he know yet, certainly he must, that he is dying? Where is the hopeful and robust theme he places in the middle of this movement leading him? He changes a key and it almost sounds more hopeful, but that is not very realistic; a bitter sweet sad compromise is reached at the end. The two concluding movements have always struck me as incredibly light compared with the first two movements, though clever, suave and wonderfully conceived.

1. Molto moderato
2. Andante sostenuto  
3. SCHERZO, Allegro vivace con delicatezza - Trio
4. Allegro ma nontroppo

Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), piano. This performance was recorded on 30 June 1968. He was 61 years old.

[13 Dec, 13: Lazar Berman's performance here.]

Thank-you for taking the time to explore the pianistic universe within the Schubert piano sonatas with me. He wrote more than this standard set and we shall review them in a future post.

Also see: Schubert's Unfinished Piano Sonatas


1 comment:

  1. More Richter playing Schubert here: