Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C major Pianist – Evgeny Kissin

Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder

This month I am excited to present one of the landmarks of the piano repertoire, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy.  I was introduced to the Wanderer many years ago, in a recording by Sviatoslav Richter for Angel Records, where it is paired with the Sonata in A major, D 664.  I still have that record, and have reproduced here a portion of the liner notes by Robin Golding.

The “WANDERER” FANTASY – so called because it uses, in its slow movement, the tune of Schubert’s own song of that name – occupies a unique position in Schubert’s work, and indeed in musical history, in using a “motto” theme to link its separate movements.  It was, of course, this same device that Liszt was to develop in his concertos and in the B minor Sonata, and from which Wagner was to evolve the principle of the Leitmotif.  No wonder that Liszt was sufficiently interested in this Fantasy (and, no doubt, by the patently “orchestral” quality of much of the piano writing) to make an arrangement of it as a concerto for piano and orchestra.  Schubert’s original dates from November 1822, a few days after he began writing out the full score of the “Unfinished” Symphony.

As we have seen, the Wanderer tune appears in full in the C sharp minor Adagio, where it is the subject of seven continuous (and often very brilliant) variations.  It is the theme’s characteristic hammering rhythm that really binds the other movements together.  The opening Allegro is permeated by it; formally the movement is more like a Rondo than a regular sonata-form structure, the explosive discussion of the principal theme twice giving way to more lyrical episodes deriving from it.  After the Adagio comes a dynamic Scherzo in A flat in which the rhythmic figure is transformed into triple time, with a song-like Trio in D flat whose material is derived from the first movement’s second episode.  The Finale begins fugally, with the theme once more in common time, but before long develops into a free and highly virtuosic peroration on the Wanderer tune.  Schubert himself was no great virtuoso at the keyboard, and it is said that he once stopped playing in the middle of the last movement and exclaimed: “Let the devil play it!”

As Golding mentions, it is Schubert’s own song, “Der Wanderer”, that gives its name to this piece and that serves as the theme of the Adagio section, which begins at 6:12 in the video below.  The interested reader can hear the song in its original version by clicking here.

In this video, we hear a stunning performance by a young Evgeny Kissin.  The tempo markings of the four movements, and their start times, are as follows:

I.  Allegro con Fuoco – 0:01
II.  Adagio – 6:12
III.  Presto – 13:41
IV.  Allegro – 18:10

I invite you now to embark on a journey through strange and wonderful lands, and to share Schubert’s joy as, at 19:20 or so (maybe not until 19:50), his Wanderer reaches his destination.

Published in: on June 30, 2017 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Schubert: String Quintet in C major

“The product of my genius and my misery, and that which I have written in my greatest distress, is that which the world seems to like best.”

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

I know of no other composer whose music speaks more directly to my heart than Franz Schubert.  Listen carefully to the third movement of this quintet.  In the first section (the scherzo), he takes us to a realm of unbounded joy, while in the slow interlude that follows, even while giving voice to unfathomable sorrow, Schubert somehow reassures us.  “Be comforted,” he says, “everything will be all right.”

The following notes are from the Sierra Chamber Society, and can be found in their entirety at http://www.fuguemasters.com/schubert.html.

Widely regarded as a masterpiece, both among Schubert’s many compositions, as well as in the entire chamber music repertory, the C major “Two Cello Quintet” was composed in what were to be the last remaining months of his short life.  The work was completed only a few weeks before his death on the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1828.  However it was not until twenty-two years later, November 17, 1850, that the work received its premiere performance.  Another three years were to elapse before the work was published.

It is often remarked that Schubert’s choice of instruments for the quintet is unusual since he did not follow the instrumentation used by Mozart and Beethoven in their string quintets.  Whereas the aforementioned masters called for two violas in their quintets, Schubert chose to double the cellos.  However, this ensemble is by no means unusual.  Luigi Boccherini composed no less than 113 string quintets using this instrumentation.  It is not known whether any of these works were known to Schubert, although Boccherini’s music was published in Vienna by Artaria, publishers of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  But it hardly matters…

The length and breadth of the Cello Quintet are of symphonic proportions.  The first movement alone is almost as long as many an entire early classical symphony, and longer than the first movement of any of Beethoven’s nine…  Particularly noteworthy in the dramatic and expansive first movement are the duet passages for the two cellos.  In his Guide to Chamber Music, Melvin Berger informs us that the violinist Joseph Saunders had the second theme of this movement carved on his tombstone.  Many lovers of this quintet feel that the second movement Adagio is the high point of the work.  It is said that it was pianist Artur Rubinstein’s wish to have this movement played at his funeral…  The third movement Scherzo opens in triple meter, with melodic figures reminiscent of horn calls.  This exuberant music continues until the Trio, which brings another mood swing to a brooding elegiac interlude, as if the composer is suddenly reminded of his own ominous fate amid the grand noise of life.  There is then a return to the lively music that opened the movement.  The final movement seems to depart from the grand gestures of the previous movements.  Perhaps it is the tempo, which seems a bit relaxed for all that has preceded it.  It does seem to have kinship with the dance-like movements of Schubert’s symphonic masterwork, the 9th Symphony in C major The Great, also composed in the last year of his life.

This video was recorded during a live performance at the Zagreb International Chamber Music Festival on October 15, 2008.  The performers are Susanna Yoko Henkel and Stefan Milenkovich on violin, Guy Ben-Ziony on viola, and Giovanni Sollima and Monika Leskovar on cello.  The four movements are marked as follows: 1) Allegro ma non troppo 2) Adagio 3) Scherzo: Presto/Trio: Andante sostenuto and 4) Allegretto.

Published in: on August 31, 2011 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 Pianist – Alfred Brendel

Franz Schubert

The beneficent genie who granted me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing is growing impatient with me to name my third sonata.  My first choice, you may remember, was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, and my second was the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Interestingly, both of those works date from the decade of my birth, but my third choice is from a much earlier time, from 1828 to be exact, the last year in the life of Franz Schubert.

The Sonata in B-flat was Schubert’s last major work for the piano.  It was completed in September 1828, just two months before Schubert died at the age of 31.  His death has been variously ascribed to typhoid fever, syphilis, and mercury poisoning – mercury being a common treatment for syphilis in Schubert’s time – but whatever the cause, it is my opinion that in the entire history of music, which is replete with premature deaths, Schubert’s was the most grievous loss of all.  Can you imagine the musical riches that would have been ours if he had lived another 10, 20, or 30 years?  If he had lived even as long as Beethoven, whom Schubert revered and who also died too young, that would have given him another 25 years.  What a profound, tragic loss!

This sublime sonata has been a favorite of mine since my days at the University of Colorado.  It is performed in this video by the great Alfred Brendel, in a recording made in 1988 at the Middle Temple in London.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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