Born in Vienna, January 31, 1797; died there, November 19, 1828
Sonata in A major for Piano, D. 959
Composed in 1828; 38 minutes
Unlike such nineteenth-century composer-virtuosi as Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann, Schubert was a less-than-brilliant pianist. There seems no reason to question the judgment of his contemporary Ferdinand Hiller that he “had but little technique.” On the other hand, his brother Ferdinand recalled that “although Schubert never represented himself as a virtuoso, any connoisseur who had the chance of hearing him in private circles will nevertheless attest that he knew how to treat the instrument with mastery and in a quite peculiar manner, so that a great specialist in music, to whom he once played his last sonatas, exclaimed: ‘Schubert, I almost admire your playing even more than your compositions!’”
The Sonata in A major, the next-to-last of Schubert’s 21 piano sonatas, belongs to a set of three sonatas dedicated to the Czech virtuoso Johann Nepomuk Hummel and completed in September 1828, some two months before the composer’s untimely death. A few weeks earlier, belatedly heeding his doctor’s advice, he had abandoned his apartment in Vienna and taken up residence with his brother in the supposedly more salubrious suburbs. There, despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Schubert produced his last three piano sonatas, as well as his valedictory chamber masterpiece, the great C-major String Quintet. All are notable for the grandeur of their conception, the richness and complexity of their tonal relationships, and the intricate interweaving of lyricism and drama.
The beginning of the A-major Sonata is as arresting as any of Schubert’s works: a sequence of stentorian chords, anchored by an unchanging A in the top voice, that dissolve into bright peals of cascading triplets. Note the taut, pouncing rhythmic figure in the left hand, marked by a wide leap; it will come back in altered form more than once later in the sonata. After introducing a lyrical second theme in E major, Schubert proceeds to mix and match these contrasting ideas, investing them with adventurous harmonies, explosive accents, and dramatic contrasts. The Allegro’s development section unfolds against a backdrop of steadily pulsing eighth-note chords, setting the stage for an unusually elaborate recapitulation that culminates in a ghostly echo of the movement’s opening bars.
No less strange and haunting is the Andantino, with its plaintive triple-time melody in F-sharp minor set against a gently rocking accompaniment; the astonishing middle section, turbulent and densely textured, anticipates Liszt’s piano idiom in its intense chromaticism and rhapsodic freedom. The third movement, a capricious Scherzo, is charged with a similar manic energy; fleeting reminiscences of the first two movements reinforce the sonata’s strong sense of thematic unity. The genial, relaxed melody of the final Rondo seems to whisk us back into more conventional territory, but Schubert doesn’t linger long on the beaten path. The last time we hear the recurring melody it’s interrupted by long pauses, as if half-remembered in a dream. Then, without warning, a blistering coda circles back to the mighty chords that started the sonata off.
© 2014 Harry Haskell
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