András Schiff: Franz Schubert – Sonatas & Impromptus (ECM New Series 2535)

Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

András Schiff
Franz Schubert: Sonatas & Impromptus

András Schiff fortepiano
Recorded July 2016, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

“Secretly, I hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?”

In these words, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) at once shadowed himself against his light of inspiration and added to its fiery glow. But because artists of any type are often their worst bêtes noires, the humble interpreter would better judge his place in history, for while this music exuded from the body of its composer, it infuses every sinew and synapse of its performer. In András Schiff, Schubert finds an amplifier both in and out of time. “Schubert’s music,” notes the Hungarian-born pianist, “is the most human that I know,” and only a musician of such humanity could hold true to that doctrine.

In his own day, Schubert was filed prematurely under “recondite,” and so after the publication of his first two early sonatas he dove headlong into his crowning Winterreise, producing also in that period the Moments musicaux (see ECM New Series 2425/26) and the first Impromptus D 899. The latter were never meant to be concert pieces. “And even if we play them in a large hall today,” Schiff insists, “we have to transform that space into an intimate space.” Schiff does that, and more, in his renderings of these mosaics. From the light-footed highs to the surface-level lows and the heavenly mids between them, Schiff achieves a striking balance and dynamic spread on the Franz Brodmann fortepiano, built in Vienna circa 1820, which makes its recording debut here. In the first impromptu especially, one hears a mind thinking aloud in words that can only be captured in their absence. In place of letters, Schubert writes with feelings—not impressions, but fully formed emotional landscapes. As lines diverge, Schiff handles their individuality with surgical care. In both the second and third impromptus, he carries across a sense of water running through a forest, while in the last enhancing the modesty reflected in the epigraph above.

The Sonata in c minor D 958 was written in 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death. Its Allegro plunges us into a world all its own, crafted as much by shadow as by light. Schiff’s rhythmic sensitivity is righteously attuned and reveals a difference of reiteration rarely matched. The mournful Adagio finds its promise fulfilled by asking for no promise to be fulfilled. Its eternal spiral of questioning and answering becomes a private dialogue for composer and performer alike. A Menuett gives us respite from the weight of darkness, turning to a memory as a rift in the fabric of time that cannot be brought closer no matter how far we reach. The final Allegro, which Schiff calls a “dance of death,” is a mad, desperate rush into turbulent night. At any given moment, it threatens to unchain itself, but manages to hold its integrity, even as it unspools to a thread of its former glory.

The Three Piano Pieces D 946, essentially impromptus by another name, are among Schubert’s most adroit. The first of these, in e-flat minor, appeared at Schiff’s fingers previously on ECM in his Encores After Beethoven, and enthralls even more in the present rendition. This piece has it all: drama and introspection, virtuosity and humility, life and death. The second is an inversion of the first, achieving some of its densest textures in the middle between a head and tail of airy resolution, while the final impromptu jumps through one thematic hoop after another until it sticks its landing perfectly.

Schiff is keen to observe that Schubert, even in his brief life, wrote more than 600 lieder for piano and voice, and that even when writing for solo piano “the human voice and the song are always present.” His magnum opus, the Sonata in A Major D 959, is proof positive of this effect and is alone worth the price of admission. Its gargantuan opening is the science of poetry incarnate. At nearly 16 minutes, it floats two images for each one it sinks, and leaves us tenderized for the lachrymose Andantino that follows. If any single movement can be exhibited as proof of the fortepiano’s capabilities, this would be it. From whispers to thunder, it encompasses the full gamut with breadth of mind, and Schiff understands its mechanical heart as his own. The mood is so intense that the Scherzo opens a portal from one end of life to the other, bleeding into the concluding Rondo as if time itself were a physical substance to be waded through on the way to eternity.

As Misha Donat writes in his liner essay, “In the beauty of his material and the magical effects of elliptical key change…it must be said that Schubert actually surpassed his model.” But perhaps their relationship isn’t so much temporal as spatial, for while Schubert had himself buried close to Beethoven, the two would seem to converse from atop distant mountains even as performers of their music try to hang-glide along the currents between them without falling. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Schubert might have written had he lived beyond the tragic age of 31, that his flame caught hold of its worldly wick for as long as it did should be enough to validate the gift of its light.

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