The complete guide to Franz Schubert, part two: piano and chamber music

Gramophone Mon 30th January 2017

In the second of a three-part series, Harriet Smith talks about Schubert's piano and chamber music with pianists Imogen Cooper, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida and string-players Christophe Coin and Thomas Kakuska

"The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes." Grillparzer's inscription on Schubert's tombstone is well known, and the sentiments it expresses have provoked much discussion not only in the 'what if?' debate - where Schubert had already gone so far in breaking down traditional forms with works like the Wanderer Fantasy, the Grand Duo Sonata or the A minor Piano Sonata, D845 - but that even then, Schubert's uniqueness was recognized at least by some, if for reasons that nowadays seem superficial. Mitsuko Uchida points out that "in his own lifetime Schubert was known as the man who composed the pretty songs, Der Wanderer and Heidenröslein. If you think about it, Mozart was popular because he had this incredible skill of playing the piano, and also the ability to hide his revolutionary ideas behind a façade of beauty. He wasn't loved for his new ideas, but because people thought what he wrote was pretty. And Beethoven had certain admirers who supported him faithfully but I'm sure that they never understood what the Grosse Fuge was about."

Schubert was of course overshadowed by Beethoven in his lifetime, the older composer dying only a year before Schubert; in those days Vienna, not exactly large today, was considerably smaller. Very little of Schubert's work was published in his own lifetime, and it wasn't until late in the 19th century that this was put to rights, beginning with the first critical edition of his works by Breitkopf & Hartel between 1884 and 1897. No less a figure than Brahms edited the symphonies. Certainly up until that time the dissemination of his music had been dependent on the advocacy of isolated individuals - notable among them was Charles Halle, who performed all the available piano sonatas (11 in total) in a series of London recitals. A decade earlier, in the 1850s, there were performances in England of the D minor Quartet and both of the piano trios. Liszt took an interest, arranging the Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra and also making his own edition of the piano version with an alternative ending, finding Schubert's piano writing somewhat clumsy. He also arranged a number of songs for solo piano, to great effect. 

In 1882 Sir George Grove, in his article on Schubert for his dictionary, stated, "no relation can be established between his life and his work; or rather, properly speaking because there is no life to establish a relationship with" - perhaps an attempt to continue the discretion about the facts of Schubert's life, illness and death? It was not until 1907 that Otto Deutsch first suggested in print that the illness may have been syphilis. Interest in the minutiae of Schubert's life seems now to have gone to the other extreme, sometimes occupying commentators more than the music itself.

If hard facts and accurate biographical information were hard to come by in the 19th century, there was no lack of fiction. At least 50 novels were written based on Schubert's life in the 100 years after his death. This already sentimentalized image was further distorted in the 1920s with Das Dreimäderlhaus, the musical that enjoyed great popular success and was later made into a film, Lilac Time (or Blossom Time depending on which side of the Atlantic you were). It needs no more than the most cursory knowledge of Schubert's music to see how far it misses the point but even today Schubert continues to be misunderstood in some quarters.

Imogen Cooper relates how she still meets people after Schubert recitals "who are slightly at a loss for words - they've been disturbed, made uncomfortable, but don't really want that to have happened because they still have their own image of Schubert and what they've heard doesn't correspond with it. Some are honest enough to say that they didn't realize his music could be so dark and demonic, so full of violent mood swings, but some still only pick up on the most beautiful, lyrical movements and disregard the rest." One of the reasons why he has yet to attain the universal acclaim of Beethoven in his piano sonatas is, Cooper believes, the sheer length involved." He's not exactly the composer of the sound bite, is he? You have to allow yourself time to be drawn into his timescale, his world, which is a very drawn-out one. Not through lack of craft at all - he often takes much more time than Beethoven, but then he is working on a different scale. But when an audience arrives to hear a concert after a 10-hour day at the office it takes huge inner strength on the pianist's part to draw them in, on to Schubert's terms." András Schiff develops this argument: "With Schubert you don't get the physical excitement you get with Beethoven – he is not interested in instrumental brilliance per se and of course he himself was not a great virtuoso like Beethoven".

The notion of time, of length, is a thorny one in Schubert, and Alfred Brendel's well-known distinction between Beethoven and Schubert makes the point very elegantly. "In Beethoven's music we never lose our bearings, we always know where we are; Schubert, on the other hand, puts us into a dream. Beethoven composes like an architect, Schubert like a sleepwalker." That effect is well demonstrated in the G major Sonata, D894, where, as Uchida explains, "the entire exposition section is harmonically as stationary as Schubert ever gets. It's a revelation, it just floats!" The stasis there gives it an epic quality which is also much in evidence in the B flat Sonata, D960. The first movement alone lasts around 20 minutes with the exposition repeat. Opinions are divided as to whether or not repeats are essential in Schubert and there is certainly no definitive solution. Uchida is adamant that it is necessary to play all the repeats. Schiff agrees, but Cooper on the other hand is closer to Brendel's more selective view when she says, " I don't play the first movement repeat in the B flat because for me the first-time bars that lead back to the beginning are so totally out of character with the rest of the piece. This movement is remarkable for the lyricism that lasts all the way through and this curious and very clumsy outburst doesn't convince me. I'm almost completely sure that had Schubert lived a few years longer he would have started reviewing the format of automatically going back to the beginning. In that respect he was still quite influenced by Beethoven."

She goes on to add that her own approach throughout the sonatas is based on a simple rule of thumb. "If you reach the development section and feel emotionally ready for it without having repeated the exposition, then fine; if not, if you feel that you're being taken into strange territory before you've got used to the landscape around you, then you need to do the repeat. But often Schubert uses first and second subjects which are rhythmically quite similar, which means that you have the impression that the first half has been slightly longer than it would be in another sonata." It was Brahms who suggested, with impeccable logic, that when a piece was new to the audience the repeat was necessary but once a work was better known it was no longer needed - perhaps suggesting that composers are less dogmatic about these issues than we have become.

One of the most striking characteristics of much of Schubert's chamber and instrumental works is the idea of a narrative, and linked to that, the sense of a particular pace pervading a movement. Winterreise is the most celebrated example - where the opening song sets up a weary but relentless tread - but there are many others: the opening Molto moderato of the B flat Sonata, D960, the Allegretto of the E minor Sonata, D566, the outer sections of the slow movements of the G major String Quartet and the E flat Piano Trio, for example.

It seems that the influence of the Lied is virtually all-pervasive. Uchida has quite a specific programme in mind for the B flat Sonata. "I see the first movement as providing a glimpse of eternity - where life and death have ended. And the second movement is one of the most poignant farewells in any music; the Arietta from Beethoven's last Sonata is the most grandiose farewell ever written, but this is the most moving. So after that the Scherzo is a dream - it's a world where the Erlkönig says 'Come with me; my daughters will dance and sing for you', and it seems as if you can hear people running around in a shadowy background and the dry leaves are rustling - but everything is dead. The last movement I do have a scenario for but it is too theatrical to put in print!" Cooper thinks that many of the sonatas are simply songs without words. "The melodies are so glorious that you almost feel obliged to put words to them." She also cites Schubert's reported habit of humming and the fact that in the last two or three days of his life he was singing manically almost continuously. There is no doubt that the influence of song played a large part in all that Schubert wrote, both literally, with works based on songs - the Trout Quintet, the Death and the Maiden Quartet, the Wanderer Fantasy - but also more subliminally, as with the hints of Gretchen am Spinnrade in the first movement of the Rosamunde Quartet (which then goes on to quote directly another Schubert song, Die Götter Griechenlands, in the Minuet), or the premonition of Winterreise's dogged pace in the slow movement of the G major Quartet.

In amongst the completed works, whether piano sonatas, string quartets, even symphonies, are scattered numerous torsos, some nearly complete, some abandoned after a few bars. That in itself has done Schubert no favours historically speaking. Whereas a cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas means 32 complete works, with Schubert the boundaries are far more blurred. Depending on whether you view some of the pieces as unfinished sonata movements or works in their own right, there are 11 complete sonatas and around a dozen that remain incomplete. It's also true of the string quartets: do you include the juvenilia, the incomplete pieces, or restrict yourself to those which are complete and 'mature'? Though it is easy in some cases to see why Schubert turned his attention elsewhere, there are several works where the quality is supremely high even by his standards: the Quartettsatz, the C major Piano Sonata, D840 (which consists of two completed movements), the F sharp minor, D571 (a single incomplete movement, abandoned at the beginning of the development section).

One can only speculate as to the reasons why but certain theories convince more than others. Schiff attributes it to a struggle with sonata form itself, particularly in the earlier works. "He breaks off always at the recapitulation because he couldn't find a way to get back to the tonic. Later on he finds a scheme to solve it and in the A major Sonata, D664 you finally get a recapitulation of the main theme in the tonic rather than the subdominant." Uchida sees it slightly differently. "There is an intrinsic problem in that for Schubert the slow movement is the centre of the issue, it is where he bares his soul. And then you are supposed to write a scherzo - that is very difficult." Cooper points out that with some works, notably the Sonata, D840, Unfinished Symphony and Quartettsatz, the problem is precisely the quality of the existing movements. "He knew better than anyone when he went off the boil, and the higher the level of the existing material, the harder it must have been to maintain that standard."

She also supports a theory put forward by Elizabeth Norman McKay in her recent book on Schubert (Clarendon Press, 12/96). "It confirms something I've thought for a long time, that Schubert was very likely to have been a manic depressive - that over and above syphilis and the typhoid fever which killed him in the end. Add to that the fact that he was certainly an abuser of alcohol, nicotine – maybe even opium - and that he didn't look after himself one little bit, and you have an image of a much wilder man than we're traditionally brought up to believe he was. And these wild mood swings in his music are fascinating, not only within individual pieces but on a larger scale where you can trace cyclical outbursts of composition in a particular medium and then... nothing. It's similar with the incomplete works; he may have found he simply couldn't finish them."

Of course Schubert's oeuvre for piano includes far more than just the sonatas: enormous numbers of dances of all kinds, marches, fugues, variations as well as those smaller works which remain central to the repertoire: two sets of Impromptus, D899 and D935, Moments musicaux, D780 and the Drei Klavierstücke, D946. Yet the Wanderer Fantasy stands alone: a unique work in Schubert's output in terms of form and overt virtuosity. It was also one of the few works of his that was published in his lifetime, in 1823, though it didn't attain much popularity at the time, apparently because of its technical difficulty; its later success came from Liszt's arrangement for piano and orchestra. It was composed for Emanuel Karl Liebenberg, an amateur pianist and former pupil of Hummel. Schiff finds it Schubert's most Beethovenian work: "In the first and fourth movements the modulations and harmony are more Beethoven than Schubert." Brendel, in his book Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Robson Books: 1976), cites it as an example of Schubert's piano writing being as much orchestral as it is vocal. "In the Wanderer Fantasy the piano is turned into an orchestra much more radically than had ever been done before; not only the individual colours of the orchestral instruments are evoked, but also the full blast of the tutti." Disregarding the piano writing for a moment, there is no doubt that its cyclical form, four movements played without a break and based on a single theme, influenced later composers, not least Liszt in his B minor Sonata and Franck in his Prélude, choral et fugue.

Though the fantasy wasn't a particularly favoured idiom amongst the solo piano works, there are other examples of this form in different media, notably the C major Fantasy for violin and piano, and, one of the most remarkable, the F minor Fantasie for piano duet. Schubert wrote prolifically for this medium but despite the enormous numbers of polonaises, dances and marches, some of which have an immediate charm, for Schubert it was far more than just a mode of entertainment. He considerably developed the possibilities of the medium, especially in the F minor Fantasie, the Grand Duo Sonata and the A flat Variations on an Original Theme. As Cooper points out, "the Grand Duo is really a symphony on the piano - a massive work. You certainly can't take the stance that piano four-hand music is merely about two pianists sitting down and enjoying themselves. It's difficult to convey the wild mood-swings, quite apart from involving an audience throughout its entire length - after all it lasts about 40 minutes."

Most of the music for piano duet was written in two specific periods, centred around 1818 and 1824, which correspond with two visits Schubert made to the summer residence of Count Johann Karl Esterházy in Zseliz, Hungary, where he taught piano and singing to the Count's two daughters, Marie and Karoline. As Imogen Cooper explains, it was the younger of the two, Karoline, who provided the inspiration for many of the four-hand works. "She was his great pedalpoint of love throughout his life - even when he wrote the F minor Fantasie in 1828, when he probably knew he wouldn't see her again - it was dedicated to Karoline and must have been written with her very much in mind. In those days piano duets were a way of flirting; they were quite often the closest you could get to a girl, and it seems likely that Schubert and Karoline also played the Grand Duo and the A flat Variations together." Their neglect today probably stems from the fact that the medium is not popular with contemporary audiences: it's inextricably linked in many people's minds with early piano lessons, with the teacher yelling 'count' while recalcitrant youth looses his or her place yet again. It's also not particularly suited to the concert platform: one pianist is virtually hidden from view and since duets are normally read from the score, they can seem more like a dialogue between the two pianists than a communion with an audience. Added to which, it's far easier to stick to tried and tested favourites - Fauré's Dolly Suite, Brahms's Hungarian Dances, Debussy's Petite Suite - than Schubert at his most uncompromising. Cooper again: "It's not the kind of music where you can just have a quick rehearsal and then go on stage and perform; it almost has to be choreographed, there has to be a very subtle approach to pedalling and tremendous flexibility in tempo. As Goethe put it, you a lmost need 'two souls in one breast' to make it work."

Turning to the chamber music, in particular the quartets and quintets, this challenge is simply multiplied. String quartets were an early preoccupation of Schubert's, with no fewer than 11 completed while he was still in his teens. Some of this activity was no doubt inspired by his experience playing viola in the family quartet. Though Schubert is reputed to have been a less good string player than a pianist, Thomas Kakuska, violist of the Alban Berg Quartet, believes that he learnt much from playing, and finds his string writing is surprisingly effective even in the early works. "He has a wonderful gift for bringing a singing sound to the strings and if you take it as far as the C major Quintet, probably his finest chamber work, he certainly reveals a profound knowledge of what string instruments are capable of." Christophe Coin, cellist of the Quatuor Mosaïques, has more reservations. "There is a lot of pleasure to be got from his string writing but the parts in the earlier works, especially the second violin and viola, are often quite badly written, with double stops which are very uncomfortable to play. I would put that down to lack of experience: he wasn't as well prepared for string writing as, say, Haydn or Boccherini." That notwithstanding, by the time of the Eighth Quartet, D87 (written when Schubert was 16), there is a discernible individual voice – though it's still possible to isolate the as yet undigested influences of Haydn, Mozart and, in the raw energy of the Scherzo, Beethoven.

After the last juvenile quartet, D353 in E, there was a gap of four years before the next work in the medium, though the two string trios (D47l and D581) show a new mastery of string textures in a difficult medium. This silence was broken by the incomplete (one whole movement and 40 bars of the second) but masterly Quartettsatz, D703. If proof were needed that Schubert was a far wilder, more iconoclastic figure than the image generally presented, here it is, from the ghostly pianissimo trembling of the opening onwards. In Christophe Coin's opinion, period instruments are almost more effective in Schubert than in Beethoven because "he demands lots of really intimate, pianissimo quartet writing". Nowhere is that better illustrated than here, and gut strings can bring home the unearthly, discomfiting quality of that opening very dramatically.

This savagery is also apparent in the finale of the D minor Quartet, D810, the so-called Death and the Maiden with its almost unrelenting rhythmic energy and bleakness of key. Even the glimpses of major key provide little in the way of consolation, and that is a characteristic seen at its most extreme in the major-key songs of Winterreise, where major spells delusion, and in the G major Quartet, D887 where tonal ambiguity rules from bar 1. Here, in his final quartet, is a culmination of many of the elements seen in earlier works (the uneasy tremolos of the Quartettsatz in the second theme of the first movement of the G major, the major/minor oscillations from the D minor Quartet and elsewhere) and a looking forward (notably in the Andante un poco moto) to the obsessive harmonic scheme of the slow movement of the String Quintet, D956, and that major/minor polarity in the opening movement of the same work. The use of two cellos has often been remarked on in the extraordinary Quintet, though there was historical precedent in Boccherini's works for the same forces, though the earlier composer was writing from a different standpoint, being a cellist himself and therefore tending to give the lower parts the limelight. It is unquestionably one of Schubert's greatest works, and Uchida finds that its greatness is virtually indestructible. "It's so strong if you let yourself into it, it will carry you. I have heard even imperfect performances of it where the piece has worked - and that's an extraordinary phenomenon."

Schubert's earlier quintet, the popular Trout, D667, is also unorthodox in its instrumentation: piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. It was written at the behest of Sylvester Paumgartner, himself an amateur cellist who requested that Schubert compose a variation movement based on his earlier song, Die Forelle. Its divertimento-like character has ensured its enduring popularity - it was one of the first of Schubert's works to gain a firm hold in the catalogue. The other chamber work of a similarly light-hearted nature was the Octet, D803, for string quartet plus double-bass, clarinet , bassoon and horn. It takes Beethoven's Septet as its starting-point and again was written as the result of a commission, this time by Count Troyer who played the (particularly gratefully written) clarinet part in the first performance.

If the B flat Piano Trio, D898, has faint reminiscences of the Trout Quintet, the E flat, D929, stands as one of the great masterpieces in the medium, a bridge between the trios of Beethoven and Brahms, formally of interest for its strange thematic proportions, musically for its absorption of the elements of a song, this time not one of Schubert's own, but a Swedish folk-song, Se solen sjunker. The piano trios provide one of the most tantalizing glimpses of the 'what if?' variety. Had Schubert lived longer, it is fascinating to speculate how he would have further developed a medium in which he felt so at home.

Notable among chamber works for a single instrument plus piano are the mature, large-scale Fantasy in C, D934 for violin and piano which received a tremendous recording from Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin back in 1931 which has never been superseded - and the Arpeggione Sonata, D821, written for an instrument that proved to be a short-lived freak, though Schubert wisely indicated the cello as an alternative. Christophe Coin used to play it on the cello but has more recently turned to the arpeggione itself, and has been impressed with the results. "I feel that Schubert liked the sound - it's like a romantic gamba, and it makes the sonata even more melancholy and morbid somehow, while being very tender and clear on the top and bottom line, which you can't achieve on the cello. I think it's one of the most beautiful sonatas ever written, though the arpeggione leaves something to be desired in terms of expression."

So what of the future for Schubert? If the deluge of recordings doesn't look set to rival the sheer number of those of the Mozart year in 1991 (for which critics and the record-buying public will probably heave a sigh of relief) , anniversaries can usefully be used to focus the attention in this age of plenty. Back in 1928, the centenary of his death, it brought Schubert some much needed recognition, both on record and in the concert-haIl. Rachmaninov might have remained blissfully unaware that Schubert had composed any piano sonatas, but he was in the minority. Lev Pouishnoff recorded the G major Sonata (despite its 'heavenly' length) which was praised in The Gramophone (6/28) for having "not a bar too much, not one tedious moment", while Myra Hess made her much cherished recording of the A major Sonata, D664. On the chamber music front the Trout was already in the catalogues, courtesy of pianist Ethel Hobday and friends, recorded acoustically and later electrically by Columbia, while the B flat Piano Trio had appeared as early as 1922 on Vocalion, again with Hobday, joined by Albert Sammons and Lionel Tertis, who had arranged the cello part for viola.

In the following decades certain names stand out - in the 1930s Schnabel's recordings of a good number of the piano sonatas, and the Trout Quintet with the Pro Arte Quartet, Edwin Fischer's lmpromptus and the Busch Quartet's readings of Quartets in D minor and G major; the 1950s saw the Octet played by the Vienna Konzerthaus, Wlach, Oehlberger, von Frieberg and Hermann, the C major Quintet with Stern, Schneider, Katims, Casals and Tortelier; the first of Richter's sonata recordings also appeared around this time - some of the bleakest and grandest Schubert of all - and continued into the 1960s (notably the Wanderer Fantasy) and 1970s. More recently, Brendel has been a tireless and distinguished advocate of the piano works, and there have been impressive recordings by Kovacevich, Cooper, Schiff and Lupu, while the list of notable quartets goes on - with the Alban Berg, Takács, Hagen and MosaÏques heading the list. Grillparzer would no doubt have been gratified.

The complete guide to Franz Schubert, part three: vocal music

In the last of a three-part series, Hilary Finch talks about Schubert's vocal music with singers Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Ian Bostridge and David Wilson-Johnson and pianists Graham Johnson and David Owen Norris... Read the article

This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing the Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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