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Letter from the Director
Letter from the Director
Tonight we welcome back one of the great present-day Schubert interpreters—Paul Lewis. We are very happy that we have been able to hear Mr. Lewis on this stage twice this season—last October and now tonight. He is continuing a two-year journey through the composer’s late piano music, which is taking him to leading musical centers of the world. With its marvelous acoustics, our hall is extremely well suited for Schubert’s music. Last October was a critical triumph, so we know what to expect tonight.
Mr. Lewis is one of those artists who has the exceptional ability to devote months or even years to a single composer and always discover new aspects to the music and deliver fresh insights to his performances. If you missed last October’s concert, we’re pleased to reprint an interview with Mr. Lewis on pages 4-5, in which he describes Schubert’s mature keyboard music as written with a “darkness and individuality of expression.”
As one can never have enough Schubert, I invite you to join me our own journey through Schubert’s late sonatas into next season’s Masters of the Keyboard series. After tonight’s program of Schubert’s two late A-minor sonatas, Inon Barnatan will return in December with his late A-major sonata, D 959. Then in April, a year from now, Lars Vogt will perform Schubert’s Sonata in G major, D. 896. Our other Masters of the Keyboard guests are Peter Serkin with the Shanghai String Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. Full series information can be found on pages 10-11, and you can subscribe by filling out the form inside your program book. Remember, subscribers get the best seats at the best price with exclusive benefits.
Director, 92Y Tisch Center for the Arts
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A Conversation with Paul Lewis
Tonight, the British pianist Paul Lewis continues a two-part exploration into the late piano works of Franz Schubert that he began at 92nd Street Y last October. His appearance here is part of a Schubert cycle that is taking him around the world. In this joint interview with Chicago’s Symphony Center, which presented Mr. Lewis last year, he discusses his feelings toward Schubert, 92Y and the cycle approach to programming.
In a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, you called Schubert “endlessly fascinating.” What distinguishes him for you?
Many things, but if I had to point to one particular aspect of Schubert, it would be the way in which he creates a sense of drama. Normally when a composer wants to convey something dramatic, it’s far more common for them to write something demonstrative which jumps off the stage at the listener—and Schubert sometimes does that too. But more often, the drama of his music is of an inward looking nature. When Schubert wants to tell you something important, he will usually lower his voice rather than raise it—he draws you into the message, rather than projects it out to you. His moments of extreme despair seem primarily to be conveyed in that way—which, for me, makes them all the more powerful.
What do you as a musician discover by exploring one composer in depth? How does it change your perspective?
That’s hard to describe, as it’s such a gradual process. Sometimes you might stumble upon a musical “solution” to something that has been eluding you via a different work by that composer. There’s one specific element of the way he writes which I’ve come to see in a different light as a result of studying some of the songs recently. Schubert often writes repeated figures, sometimes just repeated single notes, and it’s easy to see that as an accompaniment—something that shouldn’t be heard too much in the forefront.
But when you look at songs such as “Die Liebe Farbe” from Die Schöne Müllerin, or “Der Wegweiser” from Winterreise, you see that those insistent repeated notes are in fact of huge significance. There’s a sense of fate, or of not being able to escape, which of course represents a certain reality for Schubert himself after his diagnosis of syphilis in 1822-23. This has made me think again about similar passages in the solo piano music, such as the repeated notes in the first Impromptu of D. 899—every strand of Schubert’s writing has its significance, and this particular strand is, I feel, of great importance.
What are the challenges of such a project? Do you ever get bored or feel any kind of “composer fatigue?”
Definitely not! During the years I spent playing the Beethoven sonatas, there was never a moment when I felt bored of the music. Every day I knew there was something new to discover, and at the end of those years it felt like I was just getting started. It feels much the same now with Schubert. I’m not someone who constantly needs to be stimulated with huge amounts of new repertoire—I like to take my time with these things and to see what I can discover in the process. (Maybe that’s just another way of saying that I’m a slow learner….) But I think it’s impossible to be bored with truly great music—and the music you love the most always has the capacity to surprise you.
As you just mentioned, you’re also known for your Beethoven cycles. Are there other composers whose music you could contemplate making into a series?
There are many composers whose music I could imagine focusing on for an extended period of time. It’s really more a question of how you define a “series,” and what the value of that series might be. With the Beethoven sonatas, you have a body of consistently great works that span most of the composer’s life and provide an important overview of his work and development. With Schubert’s music, after 1822, you have some of the most unique and profound piano music ever written, with a darkness and individuality of expression that binds together the works written in that period.
To embark on any such journey, I think there has to be a sense of unity about the series—that way, it really becomes a journey. I’d love to focus on Haydn sometime in the future, for instance, but haven’t yet worked out how I could create a meaningful series of programs. I have to justify it to myself first—otherwise, who’d listen?
These concerts mark your second appearance at 92nd Street Y. Do you have any specific thoughts about the hall?
I loved playing at 92nd St Y in 2008. It was my debut with a program of Mozart, Ligeti and Schubert. This hall has an atmosphere not unlike Wigmore Hall in London, which lends itself perfectly to intimate music-making, and which makes it ideal for Schubert in particular.
What can we look forward to in tonight’s recital? What might audiences particularly listen for?
For tonight, I decided to put two A-minor sonatas on either side of the intermission. The earlier one, D. 784, is by far the most austere and terror stricken of any of the sonatas. In D. 845, which he wrote a few years later, Schubert conveys a similar message but expresses it in a very different way. I thought it would be interesting to hear the development between these two works in the same program—almost like flip sides of the same coin.
Schubert and the Piano
SCHUBERT AND THE PIANO
The popular iconography that has survived Franz Schubert—drawings, etchings and paintings—leaves a collective impression of a merry band of friends clad in their best finery and engaged in the unencumbered pleasures of life in Biedermeyer Vienna. Pictures of house parties, music-making and country excursions depict a vigorous little Schubert surrounded by his friends—Schober, Vogel, von Schwind, Mayrhofer, von Spaun and all the rest of the young men and women of his circle. The power of these visual images has sometimes overridden the widely available biographical evidence, which shows that the events of Schubert’s short life ranged far afield of house parties and walks in the countryside.
If we scratch the surface, even of a social event, we discover the grit that hides behind those merry images. According to the host of a winter party in 1822, “…I had asked some friends, Schubert among them, including a number of young men and women.…Schubert, who had already played a few pieces, sat at the piano and broke into dances. They all joined in the circle round him, laughing and drinking. Suddenly I was called away; a stranger was announced. It was a Commissioner of Police, who forbade us to go on with the dancing because it was Lent! When I went back to the room and announced what had happened everybody was alarmed. But Schubert remarked: ‘He has done that on purpose. The fellow knows that I like playing dance music!’ ”
Schubert’s life was complex and nuanced. The sheer numbers, let alone the quality, of compositions that he produced during the 15—yes, a mere 15—years of his professional life defy imagination. Attempting to achieve recognition (performances, publication and other measures of success) preoccupied him always. And he did all of this, despite the degrading effects of the syphilitic condition that finally claimed him, by age 31.
This evening’s concert of Schubert’s piano works reveals the fullness of his spirit in its many moods, as well as his imaginative technical skills. The joy of the man who liked playing dance music and the sorrows of the man who struggled profoundly against life’s blockades all appear in these four works. Until his very death, Schubert was still planning to take lessons in counterpoint in order to improve his methods. He left this world with his spirit of exploration fully engaged.
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German Dances and Écossaises, D. 783
Born Himmelpfortgrund, suburb of Vienna, January 31, 1797; died Vienna, November 19, 1828
German Dances and Écossaises, D. 783
Composed between 1823-24; 10 minutes
Schubert wrote for a relatively fragile instrument: soft leather hammers and thin piano wires strung onto a wooden frame that had yet to find its modern form. Yet the piano was the solid centerpiece of middle class home life and was firmly established by the early 19th century. Its audience regarded it as a core component of social interactions.
Remarkably sociable, Schubert played the piano for his friends at private gatherings, where he accompanied singers and created dance music for the guests. Imagine an evening party in a small Viennese home. Someone rolls up the carpets, Schubert sits down to the piano and the room fills with a dozen or so happy dancers, buoyed by the composer’s German Dances, Écossaises and Ländler.
No one could know how many dances Schubert made up on the spot, but he jotted down more than 450 short menuetts, waltzes, German dances, Écossaises, Ländler and galops that made the transition from ephemeral party improvisations to solid manuscript paper. In a concert setting, the groups of short dances are performed as one uninterrupted suite.
The sixteen German dances, all in 3/4 measure, are arranged in a satisfying order that contrasts keys, dynamics and mood. As for the Écossaises, Schubert created two examples of this “Scottish”-flavored dance form (which Beethoven had imagined as a dance in 3/4 measure) and appended them to the suite as a lilting coda in 2/4 measure.
Schubert appears to have assigned the titles “German dances,” “Waltzes,” and “Ländler” randomly to his piano dances in 3/4 measure (such as those of D. 783). Although he was Viennese, Schubert’s waltzes and German dances refer to the Ländler style of gentle country dances, not to the sophisticated and extroverted ballroom dances that Josef Lanner and the Strauss family were to develop.
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Allegretto in C minor, D. 915
Allegretto in C minor, D. 915
Composed in 1827; 6 minutes
Those who know Schubert’s Moments musicaux may wonder if this exquisite piece had been inadvertently omitted from that suite. The character and style of the Allegretto in C minor have all the earmarks: tenderness even in “loud” moments, sadness even in the major-key passages and a gentle lilt that stirs a memory of something lost. Yet it stands alone, beyond the six pieces of Moments musicaux, in its breath-taking beauty.
The “title” is taken from Schubert’s tempo indication: allegretto. That term frequently predicts a light style. In this case, a melancholy heart weighs on the lightness.
The overall structure of the Allegretto is a large A-B-A tent. It opens with a simply stated C-minor arpeggio figure, hands in unison octaves. The phrase repeats, this time in E-flat major. Major or minor—as Schubert alternates throughout the piece—the mood is the same. In the second section of the A part, Schubert becomes somewhat agitated, stops, considers, allows two sets of heart beats, and then continues on in C major. The major key moment does not endure.
In the B section of the Allegretto, in A-flat major, Schubert’s themes are treble melodies singing out atop simple chords that venture into new harmonic territory. The harmony returns to earth with a cadence in A-flat major. The C of that chord (the third note of the scale) becomes the basis and link for the return to the key of C minor, for a literal repeat of the A section, and the closing of the piece.
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Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Composed in 1823; 25 minutes
In addition to his piano dances, Franz Schubert’s myriad compositions include some of the most challenging pieces that a pianist can essay. A partial list includes many of his 20-plus sonatas, eight Impromptus, six Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer Fantasy. The piano parts to his 600-plus songs, too, must be counted among Schubert’s great contributions to a pianist’s repertoire, many of them demanding a high degree of technical and musical facility.
Schubert began composing sonatas for the piano in 1815, by which time he had composed dozens of solo songs with piano accompaniment but relatively little music for piano alone. From the first piano sonata, in E major (D. 157) to the last, in B-flat major (D. 960), Schubert traversed a steep path in a span of only 13 years, 1815-28. (The actual “sonata years” number just ten, since in 1821 and 1824 he composed no piano sonatas, and 1822 was the year of his great Wanderer Fantasy for piano.) Beginning with a native feel for the instrument and an uncanny ear for melody, he grew steadily in his technical abilities with thematic materials and structure.
Three of his 20-plus piano sonatas (some sonatas exist as partial or fragmentary pieces) are in the key of A minor, composed in 1817, 1823 and 1825. Of these three, the middle and late sonatas belong to the category of “most demanding in a pianist’s repertoire.”
Robert Schumann discovered this sonata and named it one of Schubert’s best. Unusual in its overall design, the work comprises three movements, the first of which is more than twice as long as the other two put together. The Allegro giusto embodies drama on a vast scale. For the greater length of the movement, Schubert centers his attention around the key of A minor, with forays into surprising harmonic byways. The drama is increased by the wide range of dynamics; beginning and ending in pianissimo, Schubert builds to several fortissimo outbursts. A coda concludes the piece in a quiet A major.
The faraway key of F major at the opening of the Andante comes as a surprise. The principal theme and its variants, quietly simple melodies, are accompanied by unassuming harmonies, all of which Schubert sets in inventive ways. The little pianissimo turn figure, which he marks “sordino” [in violinist’s score, sordino indicates that a mute is to be applied to the strings], soon becomes an important and extended thematic element. To the very end, the turn figure continues to hover, like an insistent breeze overhead. The piece ends quietly with a final iteration of the four opening bars.
The last movement returns to the key of A minor, with scurrying triplets, scalar flourishes and romping chords. Again, the dynamics range from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the whole piece ends in a flurry of double octaves and four emphatic a-minor chords: Now I Am Done!
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Sonata in A minor, D. 845
Sonata in A minor, D. 845
Composed in 1825; 31 minutes
One of the few works published in his lifetime, Schubert’s A-minor Sonata (D.845) received a warm public reception upon its appearance in 1826. The influential Leipzig music journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung allowed in its lengthy review (March 1, 1826) that it belonged with “the greatest and freest of Beethoven’s sonatas.” We do not know Schubert’s attitude toward reviews, but as a devoted admirer of Beethoven, he must have treasured this mention. The article goes on to praise the sonata’s mood, “…suppressed but sometimes violently erupting somber passion, alternating with melancholy seriousness.”
Once again, Schubert opens his sonata with an arpeggiated figure—but how different in character from that of the preceding A-minor sonata. The entire movement is in a somber, sometimes angry mood; even a brief (24-bar) section in A major brings no relief from the darkness. It is worth mentioning the similarity between this movement’s themes and mood and a song that Schubert composed at the same time: “The Grave-Digger’s Homesickness” (“Todtengräbers Heimwehe”). The eight-bar center section of the song features a theme in C minor that mirrors the insistent A-minor theme of the sonata; the text of this portion of the song reads, “Abandoned by everyone, with only Death as my nearest relative, I idle here on the rim of the opening, the Cross in my hand, and stare down with a longing glance into the depths, the depths of the grave.” Schubert’s way with surprising key shifts and dramatic dynamic contrasts serves the driving urgency of this movement. It ends with a long coda that he enlivens by suddenly exposing a new key, B minor, before ending in an emphatic perfect cadence in A minor.
The second movement relieves the tension with a theme and variations. The theme, in C major, sets a lighter tone, with a delicate statement, pianissimo, in 3/8 measure. The variations become ever more florid and technically challenging, but the piece maintains its good humor. The movement ends with a C-major wave of the hand.
Returning to A minor for the Scherzo, Schubert recalls the dramatic character of the first movement. He provides a lull in the form of a quiet Trio in F major, but the volatility of the A minor third section of the Scherzo cements his intention. It also sets up the driving A-minor Rondo that completes the entire Sonata.
© 2012 Sandra Hyslop
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Paul Lewis, piano
Paul Lewis is internationally recognized as one of the leading pianists of his generation. With the end of this season, he is reaching the mid-point of a two-year Schubert project, in which he is performing all the composer’s mature piano works, beginning with the Wandererfantasie. Entitled Schubert and the Piano: 1822-1828, it is being presented in London, Chicago, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Florence, Madrid, Prague, Singapore and at the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg. Last November, he released a critically-acclaimed all-Schubert double-CD on Harmonia Mundia, which was named Disc of the Week in December 2011 by CD Review and Disc of the Month for February 2012 by Gramophone.
In demand throughout the world as a concerto soloist, this spring Mr. Lewis is performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine and Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra. In the summer of 2010, he became the first pianist in the history of the BBC Proms to play all the Beethoven piano concertos in a single Proms season; the cycle was broadcast on the BBC. Other recent highlights include a Beethoven concerto cycle with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, international tours with the London and Bournemouth symphonies and the opening of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival. He has also appeared with the Chicago and Vienna symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, among many others.
As a prolific and award-winning recording artist, Mr. Lewis’ CD of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was released last May to great critical acclaim, and it was named Disc of the Month by BBC Music magazine and International Record Review. His 2010 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise with Mark Padmore received a Gramophone Award, and his complete set of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the BBC Symphony was named Recording of the Month by Gramophone and Classic FM magazine. Future CD releases include the completion of the three Schubert song cycles with Mark Padmore.
In addition to the Proms, Mr. Lewis is a regular guest at many of the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals. He has a particularly strong relationship with London’s Wigmore Hall, where he has appeared on more than 40 occasions. Other venues include London’s Royal Festival Hall, Chicago’s Symphony Centre, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, Zurich’s Tonhalle, Washington’s Kennedy Center and Vienna’s Konzerthaus. He made his 92Y debut in May 2008 with a program of Mozart, Schubert and Ligeti.
Mr. Lewis studied at Chethams School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before going on to study privately with Alfred Brendel. Together with his wife, the Norwegian cellist Bjørg Lewis, he is artistic director of Midsummer Music, a chamber music festival held in Buckinghamshire, UK. His website is paullewispiano.co.uk.
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