Sunday, 5 May 2013

Schubert's last piano sonata D 960

Schubert's last piano sonata, number 21 in B flat major D 960 written in 1828, has long been my favourite piano sonata, and one of my favourite pieces of music. There is something miraculous in the late works of Schubert, as the music moves through a myriad of modulations, and moods change almost from bar to bar. Schubert's last works are rarely happy, angry, sad or joyful but oscillate between every possible mood of human life.

To my mind, music such as this is best played “straight” without interpreter intervention. The music in D 960 is completely self-explanatory when played as-is and this is what I find so attractive in the new recording by Maria Pires which becomes one of my favourite recordings of this work (of which I currently own no less than fourteen versions). Bravo, Maria for just playing the music.

In general, I am doubtful about making exposition repeats in music of the classical period. It seems to me that the instruction to repeat was often based on the desire to make the music last longer, or often on the knowledge that pretty well everyone would only ever hear the work in question once only, therefore the themes needed to be impressed on the listeners. But sometimes, of course, the repeat was there for reasons of structure and balance; the eighteenth century classical period set great store by the concept of balance. After around 1820, the idea of balance began to crumble, Beethoven perhaps setting the pace with the enormous finale of his ninth symphony and, orginally, the Great Fugue as the final movement of his opus 130 string quartet in B flat major (and see also his final piano sonata, with just two movements, the final variations being one long movement). Those who wish to force poor old Schubert into the 18th century sonata mold avoid the repeat in the first movement of the D 960 sonata, even though Schubert explicitly wrote bars of music to link the exposition repeat. Pianists as eminent as Schnabel and Curzon do not repeat the exposition which, if the movement is played at a true molto moderato as marked, brings the first movement in at over 20 minutes (with Pires, or 23 minutes with Richter). But, for me, Schubert was not writing a classical 18th century sonata and his music was heading towards the land of the fantasia or improvisation where classical structure was less important. Here, I have no doubt whatsoever that the first movement exposition repeat should be made, and bravo to those who do so.

1 comment:

tony said...

Excellent note. Thanks.