Monday, March 13, 2006

Schubert's Last Piano Sonata; Sviatoslav Richter's Unique View

There are some pieces of music which I seem never to be finished with. The Schubert Sonata in B flat Deutsche 960 is one of them. I happened upon one of my many recordings of this work last week sometime and it set off a round of who plays what which way.

It is Sviatoslav Richter's playing in this case stands out. He may be the greatest Schubert interperter of all time. That isn't to say that others do not play the work well, its just that Richter has some sort of affinity for this composer which illudes most others.

This particular recording, on the French Le Chant du Monde label catalogue number PR 254 032, dates from September 24, 1974 in front of a live audience as was Richter's custom. He preferred recording live rather than in the colder studio atmosphere. But there is nothing to distinguish this from the best studio recording save a cough or two from the audience, and those just between movements. Obviously the audience knew how special this performance was. Richter's tempo in the first movement can only be described as glacial. Digging through all of the half dozen or so recordings of this work I have non play it this slow nor dare take the frist movement repeat. Richter does both and the audience responds with rapt silent attention.

Schubert stands apart as a symphonist and writer of extended insturmental works in that his writing first and foremost comes from melody and depends on it for to agreater extent than other composers, for its extended development of musical ideas.

His more than 650 lieder or songs written his short 30 some years are quite remarkable for their melodic inventiveness and in the way they treat the singer's and accompanist's relationship to the words.

Schubert extened this approach even to his longer insturmental works. For example, Beethoven's developmental structures are frequently rhythmic and motivic (eg. the first notes of the 5th Symphony spell the entirety of the symphony. He uses almost no other material.) Schubert, on the other hand spins out his melody and in just a subtle turn of a single phrase or harmony can lead his listener of player on the excursion down another path in the road each time it re-occurs.

Schubert uses his rhythmic accompniment to propell the movement along and turn up the emotional temperature. Notice the first time you hear the first theme, the accompniment is two notes to each one of melody roughly, the second time there are three, and the thrid time in its grandest statement four notes to each one of melody. So the listener has the sense of increasing tempo where there is none.

This is one of the trickiest things the performer has to contend with. The impulse to increase tempo is nearly irresistable. Indeed, many a student has struggled to keep theis movement in a stable tempo. Richter, of course, suceedes admirably and thus revealing the tension built into the structure of this movement.

Schuberts' use of melodic development necesssarilly makes for a longer work. One might think too long. However, in the hands of a master craftsman and musician like Richter nothing seems to long.

The first movenent of the B flat Sonata are a case in point. Where Beethoven took a few bars at most to make a beginning statement, Schubert takes 18 bars to begin, then takes a breath and continues his first statement. So Schubert the song-smithe, is still so, even in a purely instrumental form. Four pages of typset score pass before just the exposition of the sonata is finished. Then the question of the first movement repeats hits the peroformer squarely. To follow the repeat or not? This is a long movement to begin with, adding the repeat of what is essentially the first half of the movment even more daunting.

Many perfomers today choose not to follow the repeat. However, this, I think, changes the whole architecture of the movement and the ones following.

By architecture I mean the classic A | B form of the baroque dances as seen in the suites of Bach, in which each dance moved from a tonal centre on the Tonic to end in the Dominant key. The in the B sectiion, the tonal movement was from Dominant back to Tonic. Two equal parts balancing each other organicly the way a leaf is when you fold it and find the one half approxamately mirrors the other. As well, each section was marked with repeats giving the performer the option of repeaing a section with some personal performance differences.

As long as the first movement repeat is honoured in the Schubert Sonata, architecture remains intact. A bar count reveals that what ended up in the 19th Century Sonata (in the theory text books at least) as the exposition, is almost exactly half as long as the resst of the first movement. So taking the repeat makes the movent a balanced whole. Without the repeat, the movement is over 300 bars long and with it almost 500.

Richter takes this repeat. It makes this movement alone as long as the rest of the Sonata movements put together. Richter does not disspoint in the second half of the movement and the listener is completely convinced.

The remarkable thing about Richter's playing is that he is able to sustain the slow tempo and keep the listener engaged in the world he and Schubert create together.

I don't have anohter recording where the first movement repeat is honoured. Only Richter is brave enough to risk it. He does this in live recordings no less. No second chances, no retakes. Possibly even more remarkable is the hushed silence from the Prague audience that night.

This is, perhaps, the last work for solo piano Schubert wrote. Written mere weeks before his death. Within the space of about a month Schubert penned his last three great Sonatas. This was the last and perhaps it is his impending death which result in the storm clouds that seem to alway loom in the distance in this work and may explain the brooding nature of the following one.

After the first movement, which is somewhat disturbing at times with the low ominous rumble of the left hand trills at he end of the first subject, and the dramatic 1st ending Schubert supplied for the repeat (Richter manages to make this bars fit in without sounding as if it were just tacked on at the last moment), The second movement begins on an even more troubling accompnying note.

In Schubert's Lieder, the accompnyment frequently supplies part of the scene in which the singer finds himself. For Instance Die Forrelle (The Trout) one hears the singer (a fisherman) talking about the trout in the stream as he prepares his hook and in the piano accompnyment the pianist supplies the babbling brook at in each bar, a leap out of the water by the doomed trout.

In the second movement, the melody is a solemn song, with the accompnyment limping along behind the melody with its octave leaps beginning on the pickup to the beat. Such a sparse accompnyment is troubling to say the least and it foreshadows a movement from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. The most disturbing scene in the whole suite,
Le Gibet, a corpse hangs from a gallows sillouhetted by a blood red setting sun. Certainlly if it was impossible for Schubert to foresee this, we in this milenium, with hindsight, cannot escape it. Schubert himslef was only weeks from death himself when he wrote these notes.

After such a bleak, but beautiful, slow movement a cheerful scherzo is a welcome releif. Richter's fleet fingers make easy work of it. But even here shadows appear. The trio section of the scherzo is a syncopated minor key look into a slightly grotesque world, howeer breif.

(You can find all Gaspard de la Nuit in a translation by Michael Benedict by clicking on the link.)

The last movement begins with one of those most puzzling of dynamic markings composers use in their scorees. The first notes, octaces in both hands marked Forté the Piano. (ƒp). What did Schubert mean by this? Some believe that it was a natural sound produced by the pianos of Schubert's day where a note struck and held would naturally have the sound of forté then piano immediatlely after. But how does one replicate this on a modern instrument? Or, did Schubert want something more elaborite, where the pianist strikes the octave and releases it only half way so the hammer hits the string again but at only half velocity because only half the action was able to reset before the key was struck again?

Since we no longer use the kind of instruments which Schubert used and our modern concert grand pianos are substantially different instruments, what is the correct way to deal with this? We will probably never know. And in the long run, its affect on a perfomance is minimal as long as the performace is otherwise up to par. It's an interesting academic puzzle but not one by which a perfomance lives or dies.

One might easily pass this recording by in the music shop, so dull and utterly uninteresing is the cover. Don't hesitate! Buy it and where ever you happen to live, remember to support and shop at your local Classical Music Retailer!


laura said...

Excellent review on such a monumental recording. The first time I listened to the B-flat was Richter's performance of it, and I've never encountered a performance of any other work that has this almost unexplainable sort of depth and sorrow to it. When I chose this movement for an audition, my teacher wasn't so keen on my tempo. But after listening to a few other recordings of the work, they just came across as so trite compared to Richter's. It's true what you say- you do have to have to be a very special performer to play this at a thoughtful tempo, repeats to-boot, and still manage to have everyone's attention. I think that I'd like to play this sonata again for my 4th year recital-daringly slow- I'm not quite ready for it yet, but hopefully I will be!

Excellent post!

recordjackethistorian said...

Thanks for your kind comments Laura. It is always most heartening and encouraging when someone sees the same greatness you see in a performance!

However, Richter's tempo is controversial, and it succedes because it is part of his own person vison of the work. Not everyone will be able to match his tempi. That said, Since Richter has been so successful in using the repeat and since that first movement repeat can be argued for on structural grounds (as evidenced by a bar count), there is no reason why performers shouldn't by default perform Schubert's first movement repeat in this work. When I listen to any other performance, they all see too short by half in not taking the repeat as marked!

The Record Jacket Historian

recordjackethistorian said...

Since I first wrote this review, I've had a chance to keep on listening to this recording I've noticed that Richter's tempi are not constant. In fact, within phrases, he does change tempo, the interesting thing is that he always comes back to his original tempo. This gives the impression that he plays slower than he really does.

This is a very crafty interpertation of this work, only a master craftsman could accomplish what he does. The slight of hand is magical and breath taking.

Now, as a pianist, I'm wondering if I can apply this technique elsewhere in my playing. Don't be afraid to experiment, there's always a next time, if you want there to be!