One of the few things that I was able to do as planned, was recording this CD. 2 sessions in 2020, one for each sonata. These two, monumental works by Schubert, written during the last months of his life, have been on my radar for quite some time and I’m glad that many years (or a few decades?) of studying them and multiple phases of trial and error have resulted in recording this CD. Sometimes, persistence does pay off.
Whilst the study of these works is by no means finished or accomplished, I am pleased that recording them was possible during the pandemic year. At least, I got something tangible done…
About these two sonatas, here are the liner notes for this CD:
Franz Schubert’s last three sonatas for piano (D. 958-960) were written in 1828, the last year of his life. The last sonata was completed on September 26, only two months prior to his death. The months before his passing produced, in addition to these piano sonatas, a multitude of other works including the Three Piano Pieces, D. 946, the Mass in E-flat major, D. 950, the String Quintet in C major, D. 956, and a song cycle, published posthumously as Schwanengesang, D. 957.
The sonata in A major, D.959 and B-flat major, D. 960 have in common a large four-movement arc, in which movements of each sonata are interconnected by diverse motivic, melodic, harmonic, and structural elements.
Sonata No. 20 in A major, D.959
The exposition introduces an energetic first theme marked by vigorous jumps in the left hand, and a lyrical, gently flowing second theme. Despite the opposing characters and expressions, both themes are based on chordal-style harmonic progressions. Each theme undergoes a motivic development involving much chromaticism and modulation that connects to the following section of the exposition. The development is made almost entirely of motives from the second theme, strengthening the anticipation of the triumphant return of the first theme to mark the recapitulation. A varied form of the first theme is heard in the coda, but in a pianissimo sounding from afar, much like a reminiscence. The movement ends with soft arpeggios heard during the opening, but in opposite direction. The penultimate harmony descends a minor second to the tonic key, foreshadowing the second movement’s opening.
The second movement begins with a song-like, simple but poignant melody starting with a descending minor second, a motive also known as the “pianto,” representing laments and associated with sighing or weeping. Its dark and melancholic character are amplified by the frequent appearance of these “sighs” and the austere accompaniment. The middle section, however, erupts into a fiery, dramatic outburst that is as shocking as it is devastating. At the end of this movement, rolled chords are heard in the lowest register, that are answered by the opening of the third movement with lightly arpeggiated chords in the high register.
The latter half of the sonata consists of a cheerful and carefree Scherzo, in which the middle section recalls the left-hand jumps of the opening of the first movement, and a gently flowing Finale in sonata rondo form. The rondo’s opening theme is taken from the slow movement of Schubert’s own Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 537 (1817,) but appears here with a gently flowing accompaniment, giving this melody a renewed and amiable character. The sonata ends with a triumphant return of the opening of the first movement, but stated in retrograde, framing the sonata in its entirety.
Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major, D. 960
The first movement of Schubert’s last piano sonata exhibits a three-key exposition. The first theme in B-flat major is a hymn-like, expansive melody that moves along gently until the peaceful serenity is interrupted by an ominous, long G-flat trill in the lowest register. This trill anticipates the second tonal area in G-flat major, which, after a brief return to the tonic key is then enharmonically turned into F-sharp minor, the key of the second theme. The exposition ends in the traditional dominant key of F major. The two themes are linked by patterns of repeated notes in the accompaniment, a motivic device that will be heard in a variety of forms throughout the entire sonata, thereby connecting all movements. In contrast to the previous sonatas of this cycle, the development touches upon several different themes from the exposition, as well as a direct quotation of the opening of the song “Der Wanderer,” D. 493. The coda again recalls, albeit fragmentarily, the first theme.
The second movement is written in the key of C-sharp minor, a key very remote from the original B-flat major. C-sharp minor is also the key of “Der Wanderer,” the song quoted in the previous movement, and utilized by Schubert throughout his repertoire to convey the mood and meaning of the poem. A somber melody is supported by a rhythmically distinct accompanying pattern. A more hopeful sounding middle section displays Schubert’s lyricism at its highest, supported by an accompaniment, in which gently repeated notes provide a sense of stability and calm. After the return of the first melody accompanied by an altered bass-line pattern and several breathtaking modulations into remote keys, the movement draws to a close by quoting the last four chords of the closing section of the song “Death and the Maiden,” D. 531. This movement is also closely related in expression and texture to the slow movement of the String Quintet in C major, D.596, written during the same time, a work that can considered to be perhaps the greatest work in the chamber music repertoire. The unique scoring for two cellos emphasizes the importance of the bassline and lower registers. Parallels to this movement of the piano sonata can also be heard in the use of cello-like pizzicato bass notes during the return of the first section.
The ending of the second movement, in which all movement and time seem to come to a halt, is followed by a delicate Scherzo in which the opening melody is harmonically related to the opening theme of the first movement. A Finale beginning with a startling single G octave, turns into a more light-hearted, dance-like sonata rondo, that highlights not only Schubert’s lyricism but also his whimsical humor.