'Schubertreise' - Journey's End
‘Schubertreise’ is the fanciful name for an occasional series of concerts, presented by British pianist James Lisney and held at London’s Southbank Centre since 2001. The project has explored the completed Piano Sonatas of Franz Peter Schubert alongside complementary and contrasting chamber music, song and poetry, and has brought together prestigious artists such as Dame Emma Kirby, the Coull Quartet, violinist Paul Barritt, and Richard Baker, and a wide range of repertoire, including works by Busoni, Brahms, Walton, Schoenberg, and MacDowell. Lisney sees Schubert as a composer who “stimulates the musical, literary and psychological interests of many people”, and by presenting Schubert’s piano music alongside other repertoire, the concerts have highlighted interesting and thought-provoking connections between composers, while also illuminating Schubert’s early piano works in particular. James Lisney’s ‘Schubertreise’ reaches its journey’s end this autumn with a performance of the final three piano sonatas at the Purcell Room on 7th October 2013.
Alongside the concert series, James Lisney has also launched the ‘Schubertreise’ recording project, on his Woodhouse Editions label, which seeks to emulate the original philosophy of the concerts. The first two volumes in the series are available now, the second marking the recording debut of Lisney’s ‘cellist daughter Joy (review here), a talented musician whose impressive poise, musical maturity and fearless approach to contemporary repertoire belies her age (she is just 20).
The first volume in the series includes Schubert’s Piano Sonata in E, D157, his first attempt at writing a piano sonata, as well as shorter works (two sets of Variations, D156 and D576, ‘Hüttenbrenner‘, two Minuets and the Andante in A, D604). The other large-scale work on the disc is the Piano Sonata in D by Icelandic composer Arni Björnsson (1905-1995), a substantial work (and for me, the real revelation on this recording), which complements Schubert in its depth of expression, melodic variety, and a sweetly consoling middle movement. All the works on the CD appeared on earlier albums by Lisney (released by Olympia in the 1990s), and have been brought together to form an enjoyable programme, not unlike an old-fashioned “recital” album. Lisney is a fine Schubert player, sensitive to the shifting moods, colours, rhythmic vitality and dynamic range of Schubert’s writing. His account of the Piano Sonata in E, D157 combines Beethovenian majesty in the outer movements with more lyrical territory: the middle movement is soulful, but never sentimental. The shorter works display the lighter side of Schubert’s personality – and Lisney does not shy away from highlighting the “prettiness” of Schubert’s writing, reminding us that Schubert was a composer of songs and dances. This is “salon music” to be enjoyed at home with friends – as it would have been performed and enjoyed in Schubert’s day.
An earlier 2-disc Schubert album (2006), also on the Woodhouse Editions label, offers a generous and beautifully presented programme of the two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935), the Drei Klavierstücke D946, the rarely-heard Fantasy in C ‘Grazer’, and the final Piano Sonata, D960 in B flat.
Schubert’s piano sonatas do not create such a satisfying cycle as Beethoven piano sonata’s, and have been dismissed by some as lacking the architecture and drama of Beethoven’s. As Lisney himself says, “the circumstances of Schubert’s life and his extraordinary speed of development as a composer can create problems: incomplete works or different versions of the same work place great responsibility on the performer to try to do justice to the composer’s intentions and memory.” It has become customary for the final three sonatas to be programmed together in one concert, just as Beethoven’s last three are, as the sonatas display a certain spiritual progression, though it is not clear whether Schubert intended them as a cycle. Alfred Brendel asserts that Artur Schnabel was one of the first pianists to play Schubert’s last three sonatas in one concert. Heard together, the three final sonatas are a wonderful, if strenuous (for performer), programme, and they do seem to be hewn from the some of the same materials as Beethoven’s.
Schubert wrote the last three sonatas in the final few months before his death, at 31, part of a burst of brilliant activity, and a time of astonishing difficulties and achievements, haunted by ill-health and poverty. The works show links with the great song cycle Winterreise (1828) in the thematic, rhythmic and harmonic connections between the movements of each sonata, and also the idea that each piece is in some way inhabits the persona of the lonely wanderer of Winterreise (a theme also present in the two sets of Impromptus, which were composed post-Winterreise). While Beethoven’s have a sense of a composer, profoundly deaf, unlucky in love, and ailing, proclaiming his creed to the world with a sense of both resignation and resolution (but never regret), Schubert’s last sonatas speak more softly and questioningly.
Schubert numbered the sonatas sequentially, perhaps envisioning them as a cycle. All three sonatas pay homage to Beethoven, the D958 most overtly in its defiantly dramatic key of C minor, but while Beethoven’s sonatas grew more unconventional in their pattern of movements, Schubert’s sonatas display a classical structure of four movements, with the slow movement falling second in the sequence. After the turbulent neuroses of the C minor Sonata (D958), the A Major Sonata (D959) is sweetly nostalgic, though the slow movement is one of Schubert’s most acutely emotional. The Scherzo is just that – playful, humorous and mercurial – and the final movement is a lyrical rondo.
The final Sonata, the D960 in B flat, casts the strongest spell of the triptych. Harmoniously balanced, gently melancholic and imbued with a sense of acceptance, its spacious, valedictory opening movement is almost as long as an entire Beethoven sonata, and it plots its course like a great river flowing towards the sea. Despite bass rumblings and a journey into more unsettled territory in the development section, the music only ever nudges the outer edges of the heart of darkness. The sombre Andante Sostenuto second movement is offset by a middle section in warm-hearted A major with a choral melody over an animated accompaniment. The opening sentences of the Scherzo pour forth as joyously as a mountain stream. Typically of Schubert, there is a darker Trio in B-flat minor, with unsettling off-beat stresses and sighing melodic strands, before the first section is recapitulated, and the bright stream pours out once again. The finale, despite being scored in C minor and opening with a bare G (redolent of the opening of the first Impromptu of the D899 set) is affirmative, ending with a triumphant Presto.
Hear James Lisney perform Schubert’s Last Sonatas at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, on 7th October 2013. Tickets and further information here
Listen to audio samples and order CDs direct from Woodhouse Editions
My review of an earlier stop in the ‘Schubertreise’ journey