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PROGRAM NOTES: Sir András Schiff, piano

by Eric Bromberger


The concept for this concert grew out of a curious coincidence in the careers of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. All four of these composers wrote three piano sonatas late in their lives. Haydn wrote a set of three large-scale sonatas during his final visit to London, perhaps inspired by the powerful English pianos he encountered there. Beethoven wrote his final three piano sonatas (Opp. 109-11) during the years 1821-22, just as he was emerging from a long fallow period. Those three sonatas initiated–in fact, helped define–what we know as his Late Style. Schubert wrote three massive piano sonatas all at once in September 1828. He was ill as he wrote them, and he died just two months later. The situation is more complex with Mozart: he wrote his final three piano sonatas over the space of about one year, though they were composed separately and do not form a discrete group.

On this recital Sir András Schiff performs the first of each of these four composers’ final three sonatas. These are the next-to next-to last sonatas of each of the four, their antepenultimate piano sonatas.

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, K.570
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

The Sonata in B-flat Major comes from late in Mozart’s life: he composed it in Vienna in February 1789, just before departing for Berlin and a hoped-for audience with King Wilhelm Friedrich II. A certain amount of mystery surrounds this gentle music: some scholars feel that Mozart intended it as a work for his students to perform, and it also exists in a version with a violin part added to the piano line. It remains one of Mozart’s less-frequently performed sonatas.

Which is too bad. This sonata is a jewel, and if some are ready to dismiss it as a sonata for beginners, others hear in it a classic simplicity that takes it far beyond the realm of the student. Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein speaks of this music with almost extravagant praise, calling it “the most completely rounded of them all, the ideal of his piano sonata.”

The opening Allegro is characterized by simplicity–and by elegance. Its octave beginning gives way to a chromatically-colored second subject, and the exposition comes to its close in a shower of sparkling runs. The development begins in the shadow of storm-clouds, but these blow away quickly, and the movement concludes in sunshine.

The Adagio, in E-flat major, is built on its stately main idea. Mozart interrupts its progress with varied episodes, but the calm simplicity (that word, once again) of the opening always returns to establish order. The brief Allegretto that concludes the sonata is an absolute delight. Despite some vigorous syncopations and unexpected thematic leaps, this is music of crystalline clarity and genuine elegance, and it always seems to be over too soon.

Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 110
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The years 1813 through 1820 were exceptionally difficult for Beethoven. Not only was he having financial difficulties, but this was also the period of his bitter legal struggle for custody of his nephew Karl. Under these stresses, and with the added burden of ill health, Beethoven almost stopped composing. Where the previous two decades had seen a great outpouring of music, now his creative powers flickered and were nearly extinguished. Not until 1820 was he able to put his troubles, both personal and creative, behind him and marshal his energy as a composer. At the end of May 1820 he committed himself to writing three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger; these would be Beethoven’s final sonatas. Although he claimed he wrote them “in one breath,” their composition was actually spread out over a longer period than he expected when he agreed to write them.

The Sonata in A-flat Major, completed in December 1821, shows some of the most original touches in a group of sonatas that are all distinguished for their originality. The first movement, Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, is remarkable for its lovely and continuous lyricism. Beethoven notes that the opening is to be played con amabilita, and that spirit hovers over the entire movement. The essentially lyric quality of this movement is underlined by the fact that the second theme grows immediately out of the first: the opening idea has barely been stated when the second seems to rise directly out of it. By contrast, the bluff Allegro molto is rough and ready: it is a scherzo with a brief trio section full of energy and rhythmic surprises.

The long final movement is of complex structure: it performs the function of both adagio and finale, yet even these elements are intermixed with great originality. The main theme of the Adagio, marked Arioso dolente, arches painfully over a steady chordal accompaniment before Beethoven introduces a fugue marked Allegro, ma non troppo. After a brief working-out, the fugue comes to a halt and the Arioso theme returns. This time, however, Beethoven has marked it Ermattet, klagend (exhausted, grieving), and here the music seems almost choked and struggling to move. Yet gradually the music gathers strength and the fugue returns, but this time Beethoven has inverted the theme and builds the fugue on this inversion. The sonata ends with a great rush upward across five octaves to the triumphant final chord.

Sonata in D Major, Hob. HXVI: 51
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

The Sonata in D Major dates from Haydn’s second triumphant London visit. Like its two companions of 1794, Nos. 50 and 52, the sonata exploits the weightier sonorities of the new Broadwood instruments Haydn relished in London. But whereas Nos. 50 and 52 are quasi-symphonic sonatas, written for the professional pianist Therese Jansen, No. 51 is an intimate, two-movement work. Haydn perhaps intended it for his pupil and lover Rebecca Schroeter, to whom he dedicated three beautiful piano trios (Nos. 24–26). Despite its modest scale and relative technical simplicity—which fooled an early reviewer into thinking it was composed near the beginning of Haydn’s career—the D major is as forward-looking as the two more imposing London sonatas. The first movement, in an idiosyncratic sonata form that varies rather than develops its themes, is a relaxed stroll that prefigures Schubert in its ‘open-air’ textures (right hand in octaves against rippling left-hand triplets) and piquant harmonic touches. The work’s tensions are concentrated in the syncopated scherzo-finale, with its pervasive chromaticism, irregular phrase lengths and aggressively disruptive offbeat accents: music it would be tempting to dub Beethovenian were it not also intensely characteristic of late Haydn.
Program note by Richard Wigmore © 2012

Piano Sonata in A Major, D.959
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

Schubert’s final year was dreadful. Ill for years, he went into steady decline in 1828 and died in November at 31. Yet from those last months came a steady stream of masterpieces, and few of the achievements of that miraculous–and agonizing–year seem more remarkable than the composition of three large-scale piano sonatas in the month of September, barely eight weeks before his death. In the years following Schubert’s death, many of the works from this final year were recognized as the masterpieces they are, but the three piano sonatas made their way much more slowly. When they appeared in 1838, a decade after Schubert’s death, the publisher dedicated them to Schumann, one of Schubert’s greatest admirers, but even Schumann confessed mystification, noting with a kind of dismayed condescension that “Always musical and rich in songlike themes, these pieces ripple on, page after page . . .” Even as late as 1949, Schubert’s adoring biographer Robert Haven Schauffler could rate them “considerably below the level of the last symphonies and quartets, the String Quintet, and the best songs.” It took Artur Schnabel’s championing these sonatas to rescue them from obscurity. The last of them, in fact, has today become one of the most familiar of all piano sonatas: the current catalog lists over forty separate recordings.

Still, these sonatas remain a refined taste, and some of the problem may lie in the fact that our notion of a piano sonata has been so conditioned by Beethoven that Schubert’s late sonatas–which conform neither structurally nor emotionally to the Beethoven model–can seem mystifying. Certainly the opening Allegro of the Sonata in A Major seems to be in a sort of sonata form, with a declarative opening theme-group and a more flowing second subject marked pianissimo, but the development does not do the things that a Beethoven development has taught us to expect: instead, it grows almost entirely out of a wisp of a phrase from the second theme group and then proceeds to go its own way. Alfred Einstein both describes and defends Schubert’s method: “in place of a development proper Schubert spins a dreamy, ballad-like web of sound, the very existence of which is its own best justification.” Schubert rounds this long movement off with an impressive–and very quiet–coda derived from the opening material.

The really stunning movement in this sonata is the Andante. Structurally, this is in ternary form, but what music lies within this simple form! It opens with a wistful little melody that treads along its steady 3/8 meter and spins an air of painful melancholy. It is moving music, but the simplicity of this opening in no way prepares us for what happens at the center of this movement, where the pace moves ahead gradually and the movement suddenly explodes into furious, tormented music. And then this agony has passed, the opening music resumes, and now its steady and measured pace seems all the more moving for having regained control.

The brief Scherzo whips along on flashing, dancing chords, with much of its sparkling character coming from the right hand’s being written in the piano’s ringing high register; the trio feels almost sedate in comparison. The last movement seems consciously to call up echoes of the past. Many have noted the similarity between this rondo-finale and the one that Beethoven wrote to close out his Sonata in G Major, Opus 31, No. 1; Einstein correctly hears echoes of Schubert’s own song Im Frühling in the pianist’s left hand, and Schubert borrowed the main theme of this movement from his own Piano Sonata in A Minor, composed in 1817. Schubert’s rondo is built on only two themes, and–unusually–they begin to develop as this movement proceeds. But matters never become too serious, and in fact the impression this movement creates is of endlessly relaxed and happy music-making. Schubert provides some structural unity by rounding off the sonata with a Presto coda that recalls the opening of the first movement, but it is the flowing, genial spirit of this movement that one remembers when the sonata is done.