Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Aside from his operas, Schubert‘s most neglected compositions must be his works for violin. The reason for the neglect of these treasures is not hard to guess.
Aside from the musical quality and level of inspiration of a work, its degree of difficulty is usually a crucial consideration for most performers. Since much of their success is derived from the display of technical mastery over their instrument, they tend to gravitate toward music difficult enough to allow them a chance to show off this prowess — while on the other hand avoiding outrageous difficulties that not only require endless practise but are also perilous to play in public.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) managed to miss the mark on both ends of this happy hunting ground of the virtuoso by first writing these three Sonatas, which have generally (and shamefully) been considered too “easy” to be worth the attention of performers beyond the category of advanced student. He then compounded the error by writing such devilishly difficult works as the Rondo in B minor D 895 and the great — if somewhat problematic — Fantasie in C major, D 934, considered (like the “Wanderer” Fantasie for piano) to be nigh unplayable. But to do justice to any work of genius — perhaps especially when it is outwardly “easy” like the Schubert Violin Sonatas — remains a profound and rewarding challenge.
The relative simplicity of these works caused them to be condescendingly titled “Sonatinas” when they were first published as Op. 137 by Diabelli in 1836, eight years after Schubert‘s death. This spurious title may share responsibility for the neglect of these splendid pieces, which are no more “Sonatinas” than any of Mozart‘s or Beethoven’s early Violin Sonatas. The new Bärenreiter complete edition of Schubert on which our performances are based, has now restored the proper epithet of “Sonata” to these exquisite gems.
Little is known about the origin of the Sonatas, except that they were written in March and April of 1816, when Schubert was nineteen years old. Their highly personal, inspired yet subtle expression and their seamless, natural nobility testify to a teen-ager of extraordinary depth and mastery. His profoundly poetic character (at an age when most people are at their most prosaic) can be judged from the words he wrote in his diary that year about Mozart: “All my life I shall remember this fine, clear, lovely day. I still hear softly, as from a distance, the magic strains of Mozart’s music… So do these lovely impressions, which neither time nor circumstance can efface, remain in the mind and influence for good our whole existence. In the dark places of this life they point to that clear-shining and distant future in which our whole hope lies. O immortal Mozart, how infinitely many inspiring suggestions of a finer, better life have you left in our souls!” How perfectly Schubert’s words apply to his own music, from our perspective…
Sonata for violin and piano in D major, D 384
The opening Allegro molto of the Sonata for violin and piano in D major, D 384 displays a remarkable economy of material. Perhaps reflecting a debt to Haydn, both the second and closing themes are closely related to the opening theme — first given in sparse unisono octaves and then developed with recurring canonic imitations. The sweet conversation of the Andante is clouded only slightly by its middle section, which starts almost mournfully in A minor but is quickly soothed back to C major. Only as we approach the return of the main theme does it become truly and urgently poignant; in the coda a new theme is introduced, whose expressive downward-sweeping interval seems to give a warm blessing to the whole movement. The final Allegro vivace is a spirited romp which combines a nonchalant tenderness with an occasional display of mock anger.
Sonata for violin and piano in A minor, D 385
The second Sonata for violin and piano in A minor, D 385, is the most impressive of the three. The mysterious haunting intervals of the opening are expanded and amplified to a bitter intensity by the violin, only to melt into a second subject that is the quintessence of songful tenderness. The development returns to and intensifies the puzzling, daring starkness of the opening harmonies, and then dissolve into a recapitulation in the subdominant rather than the usual tonic home key.
The Andante’s wholesome, simple flow is interrupted by a chain of wide, disturbing intervals (perhaps unconsciously echoing those of the first movement) and augmented by pulsating dynamic contrasts. An interesting deviation from the simplest rondo form (ABABA) puts the first return of the main theme in the distant key of A-flat major.
A Menuetto follows, whose Allegro tempo and agitated character contradict the usual character of that dance, though the middle section displays a lovely, intimate Ländler quality. The final Allegro retouches many of the work’s moods, with the introspective and melancholy opening being following by a tender second theme and a turbulent, contrapuntal third idea: an unusual instance of a movement with three themes of approximately equal importance, something with which Schubert seemed to be experimenting during this period.
Sonata for violin and piano in G minor, D 408
The third sonata for violin and piano in G minor, D 408, opens with an Allegro giusto that is a study in contrasts. The stern, angular initial outburst is transformed by the piano into a restrained and moody, but still somewhat agitated, character. The violin reenters, attempting to reintroduce subtly the tenseness of the opening, but opens instead into a flowing second theme of overwhelming sweetness — played, curiously, only by the piano. A second surprising modulation turns the clipped rhythm of the opening into the genial charm of the closing theme, rounding out another exposition with not just three important themes, but also three principal keys. The intimate Andante is remarkable for its dramatically expressive middle section and the imaginative ornamentation which graces the return of its main theme. A courtly Menuetto is followed by the finale, an Allegro moderato which meanders wistfully between major and minor — as do many of Schubert‘s works. The movement gradually becomes more joyful, leading us to a brief but triumphant conclusion in G major.
© Anton Kuerti