The luminous partnership of Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien returns to Hyperion for this double album containing Schubert’s complete music for violin and piano. Their intelligence and technical prowess, their seamless and intimate connection as performers and their profound understanding of the music combine in magical performances.
While still in his teens, Schubert wrote four works for violin and piano that could have been given the label ‘sonata’, yet none of the four was published with that title. The first three, completed in 1816, bear instead the designation of ‘Sonatina’, perhaps to appeal to the amateur market. But these are highly accomplished works by the teenage composer and there is little ‘domestic’ feeling in the extended, mysterious unravellings of D385 which hint at compositions yet to come.
The later Violin Sonata in A major, D574 (now described as a ‘Duo’), urges the violinist on to greater virtuosic feats, and the Rondo in B minor even more so, with the piano sometimes treated as a surrogate orchestra. The extensive Fantasy in C major, written in the last year of Schubert’s life, is a masterpiece: the composer’s greatest achievement in this genre, which combines poignancy with sheer joy in life itself.
The years 1815 and 1816 alone should scotch once and for all the lazy myth of Schubert the feckless, happy-go-lucky Bohemian. Towards the end of 1814 the seventeen-year-old composer had become a reluctant teacher at his father’s primary school, supplementing his paltry income by giving private music lessons. He played the viola in the family string quartet, and in the small orchestra that met regularly at the houses of the Viennese merchant Franz Frischling and, from early 1816, the violinist Otto Hatwig. Twice a week he had lessons with the venerable Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, a survivor from the age of Mozart. And he somehow found time to compose a phenomenal quantity of music, including four symphonies (Nos 2–5), three Masses, shorter sacred works, chamber works, piano sonatas, part-songs, four one-act operas, and over 250 solo songs, many among the world’s best-loved.
Although Schubert quickly found his own individual voice in song, so many works of these two years reveal his reverence for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, already enshrined as the Viennese Classical trinity. Mozart, above all, was his idol. After hearing a performance of a string quintet—possibly the one in G minor, K516—in June 1816 Schubert wrote in his diary: ‘As from afar, the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me … They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance … O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many comforting glimpses of a brighter, better life have you brought into our souls.’
Half-echoes of Mozart’s music crop up again and again in Schubert’s early quartets and symphonies, above all in Symphony No 5 of autumn 1816. Heidenröslein and a dozen other lighter songs pay charming homage to Die Zauberflöte, evidently his favourite among Mozart’s operas. Mozart’s spirit also suffuses the three violin sonatas Schubert composed in March and April of 1816, designated, in the eighteenth-century fashion, ‘Sonatas for piano, with violin accompaniment’. When the sonatas were published by the firm of Diabelli (of Beethoven variations fame) in 1836, eight years after Schubert’s death, they were advertised as ‘sonatinas’, doubtless to lure the lucrative amateur market. While the diminutive is reasonable enough in the case of the three-movement, technically undemanding D major, D384, it unfairly miniaturizes the A minor and G minor sonatas, each in four movements and lasting as long as some of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.
Consciously or not, Schubert seems to have modelled the main theme of the Sonata in D major’s opening Allegro molto, heard first in unison then in free imitation between violin and piano left hand, on Mozart’s great E minor Sonata, K304. But Schubert’s compact movement is far more amiable, even naive, not least in the jaunty second subject. The gracefully Mozartian outer sections of the A major Andante enclose a plaintive A minor song for violin, while the 6/8 finale alternates a blithe, bounding refrain with episodes featuring bouts of mock-severe imitative counterpoint.
The Sonata in A minor, Schubert’s favourite key for expressions of pathos, has a more individual flavour. At the opening of the first movement the violin transmutes the piano’s yearning cantabile into strenuous rhetoric, with vaulting leaps between registers. In the lyrical C major theme that follows Schubert seems to remember, both in the cut of the melody and the subdominant-leaning harmony, the fast section of the Countess’s famous aria ‘Dove sono’ from Le nozze di Figaro. The music then settles in F major for a third theme, beginning as a chirpy dialogue between violin and piano left hand around pulsing triplets in the right. Schubert thus creates an exposition with three, rather than the traditional two, separate key centres (A minor, C major and F major), a trait found in so many of his sonata-form movements, right through to the B flat Piano Sonata and the String Quintet.
The beguiling F major Andante initially evokes the minuet finale of Mozart’s F major Violin Sonata, K377 (which Schubert also remembered a few months later in the Fifth Symphony’s Andante), though the harmonic adventures of its two episodes are pure Schubert. The third movement, in D minor—another unorthodox key choice—is a cussed, laconic Menuetto, more Haydnesque than Mozartian, with a Ländler-style trio underpinned by piquant chromatic harmonies. Opening with a violin song of melancholy grace, the rondo finale has a similar plan to that of the D major Sonata. But its scale is broader, its reach bolder. At the climaxes of the two episodes the instruments hurl rising scales at each other with almost Beethovenian vehemence.
The Sonata in G minor—a key with inevitable Mozartian associations—shares many traits with the A minor: a first movement whose exposition embraces three rather than two key centres (here G minor, B flat and E flat); a shapely, songful Andante that pays overt homage to Mozart (the main theme virtually quotes the Romanze of the Third Horn Concerto), a fast Menuetto with a relaxed Ländler trio, and a contredanse finale.
In the Allegro giusto Schubert progressively transforms the brusque unison opening, first into a pensive cantabile for piano alone, and then into a suave rococo minuet. The delightful trio of the Menuetto seems like a (doubtless subconscious) recollection of the bucolic trio from Mozart’s Symphony No 39, with the melody underscored by a gurgling accompaniment from the piano-as-clarinet. The finale opens in wistful mood but quickly brightens for a popular-style tune with more than a whiff of comic opera.
The winter of 1816–17 was a time of decisive change for Schubert. Ever more frustrated by the drudgery of teaching, he made his first bid for freedom, leaving the family home and schoolhouse and moving in with the wealthy Franz von Schober. He abandoned his studies with Salieri, irked by his insistence that he should give ‘the barbarous German language’ a wide berth and concentrate on Italian opera. While his frantic rate of song composition slackened, mainly because he became absorbed by the challenge of the piano sonata, 1817 still saw the production of over sixty songs, including such favourites as Die Forelle, An die Musik and Der Tod und das Mädchen.
Three friendships were particularly important for Schubert in his newly acquired independence. One was Schober, a gregarious dilettante who throughout his long life (he outlived Schubert by fifty-four years) tried his hand at everything and stuck at nothing. A counterweight to Schober’s hedonism was Schubert’s growing friendship with the melancholy, taciturn poet Johann Mayrhofer, whose verses, often of a lofty, classical cast, inspired no fewer than twenty songs in 1817. The third crucial figure that year was the opera star Johann Michael Vogl, whom Schubert met through Schober and Joseph von Spaun. A touch condescending at first, the baritone soon became a devoted friend and champion who did more than anyone to spread the composer’s name in and around Vienna.
In 1817, too, Vienna became infected by Rossini fever. Schubert himself was not immune, as can be heard in the Sixth Symphony, begun that autumn, and the two exuberant Overtures in the Italian Style. But there is no trace of Rossini, and little of Mozart, in the Sonata in A major composed during August and published by Diabelli in 1851 as Duo (en la) pour piano et violon. While the Sonata’s mood is predominantly relaxed and genial, the violin writing is more challenging than in the three sonatas of 1816. Schubert’s opening is gloriously memorable: a free-soaring violin melody counterpointed by a lolloping rhythm in the keyboard bass. Despite moments of energetic dialogue for the two instruments, the movement is in essence a leisurely song without words for the violin that slips into all sorts of unexpected keys en route.
The Presto second movement is an exuberant take on the Beethovenian scherzo, full of teasingly irregular phrases, abrupt changes of dynamics and vertiginous leaps for the violin. In the second half Schubert spirits us to remote tonal regions with nonchalant sleight-of-hand. The C major Andantino begins with one of Schubert’s most guileless tunes. But initial impressions are belied by the music’s harmonic adventure, both in the opening section, which quickly drifts to a far-flung D flat major, and in the central episode. After a condensed reprise of the opening (with the tune underpinned by a little rhythmic figure from the central section), the major-minor equivocation of the very last bars is a touching and characteristic Schubertian effect. Opening with a faint reminiscence of the scherzo, the finale is a movement of irresistible verve that combines the melodic generosity of the first movement with the scherzo’s ebullience and tonal caprice.
While the four violin sonatas are essentially intimate works, the B minor Rondo (or Rondeau brillant, as it was dubbed by the publisher Artaria), and the C major Fantasy are rare display pieces from this least showy of composers. Both were inspired by the young violin virtuoso Josef Slavík (or Slawjk), who in 1826 left his native Bohemia to make a career in Vienna. A few years later Chopin admiringly dubbed him ‘a second Paganini’. Dating from October 1826, the Rondeau brillant was first performed by Slavík and Karl Maria von Bocklet in a concert organized by Artaria early in 1827. (Bocklet would later take the piano parts in the premieres of both Schubert trios.)
Cast in two lengthy sections—an Andante introduction and an Allegro in sonata-rondo form—the Rondo in B minor is Schubert at his most extrovert and rhetorically forceful. Its technical demands are of a different order from the works of 1816–17, with the piano sometimes treated as a surrogate orchestra. The introduction begins imposingly with echoes of a French Baroque overture, before softening into a long-spun, Italianate cantilena. The question posed by its final two notes is resolved by the rondo Allegro, music of unflagging rhythmic energy, by turns skittish and strenuous, leavened by moments of stillness and harmonic poetry. The second theme, introduced by the piano against hyperactive violin figuration, could have strutted straight out of a Schubert Marche militaire. After a reminiscence of the introduction’s cantilena and a reprise of the rondo theme comes a central episode in G major whose affable tune is truculently developed through a daring spectrum of keys. The rondo theme makes a final appearance before the march kick-starts the barnstorming Più mosso coda.
In December 1827, shortly after completing the final twelve songs of Winterreise, Schubert composed another work calculated to display Slavík’s virtuoso technique: the Fantasy in C major D934, premiered by the violinist and Bocklet at a Viennese concert in January 1828. From a contemporary review we can glean that the audience was less than enchanted. ‘The Fantasie occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece.’
Original listeners, that Viennese critic included, seem to have been fazed by both the Fantasy’s length and its unusual structure: a series of contrasted, loosely linked sections built around a sequence of variations on a Schubert song. The not-so-slow introduction (Andante molto) opens with the same C major-minor ambiguity as the String Quintet, composed the following autumn. Here the violin cantilena soars above flamboyant figuration in which the piano seems to be aping an orchestral string tremolo. Next comes a delightful, Hungarian-style Allegretto in A minor-major, with the two instruments playing in canon. After some colourful Schubertian modulations, the music works its way to the verge of A flat major for the Fantasy’s long centrepiece: a series of four variations on Schubert’s 1822 setting of Friedrich Rückert’s Sei mir gegrüsst! (‘I greet you!’), whose soulful melody and suave waltz lilt had made it one of his most popular songs. (The song is also heard here as an encore, with the voice part played on the violin.)
For its new incarnation Schubert considerably altered the song melody, remembering in the process a phrase from the first movement of Mozart’s A major Sonata, K331 (the one with the Rondo alla turca). The first three variations are bravura showpieces, with shades of Paganini—then all the rage in Vienna—in the prancing, glittering violin figuration; the fourth recreates the song’s original lyricism, drifts towards C major and ushers in a shortened reprise of the introduction. This in turn leads to the Fantasy’s ‘finale’, a swaggering Allegro vivace in Schubert’s best Marche militaire vein (a faint echo here of the Rondeau brillant). A swerve to A flat brings a final reminiscence of Sei mir gegrüsst!, before the march launches a tumultuous send-off that might even have roused that first Viennese critic had he bothered to stay the course.
Richard Wigmore © 2013