The idea of learning and performing the complete Schubert Piano Sonatas first came to me around two years ago. I had felt drawn to Schubert since my studies with Vadim Suchanov, a wonderful Russian pianist working in Munich. It was he who opened my eyes to the incredible modulations, the complex voice leading, and above all to the hypnotic power of the “heavenly lengths”. After winning a prize at the International Schubert Competition in Dortmund and narrowly missing out on the Schubert Prize at the 2000 Leeds Competition, I thought I knew a fair amount about Schubert’s piano sonatas. Why not play the lot, I thought. It seemed a good idea to see how many there actually are, so I opened my Dover edition and was pleasantly surprised at how manageable it looked. A little background reading, perhaps some listening to areas of the Schubert oeuvre I didn’t know so well, and I could be off, I thought.

There was a church I knew in Aylesbury with a small concert series. Perhaps the organizer would let me stage the series over a year, with enough time between each recital to learn the next programme. A tentative enquiry met with a positive response. Nothing standing in my way, I embarked upon the task of researching and mounting a provisional programme. I was lucky enough to be acquainted with the eminent Schubertian Martino Tirimo, who had played and recorded a complete cycle, so it seemed wise to consult him. He was very helpful, although worryingly he kept referring to sonatas not in my edition. Maybe an urtext edition would be appropriate, after all. Three Henle volumes later and my confusion became a panic – Sonatas in F Minor? F Sharp Minor? D Flat? E Major? My schedule was in tatters, and the task had suddenly almost doubled. A lot more reading was necessary before I could be sure what I was actually going to play.

Another genre of Schubert I had already strayed into were the dances, beautifully crafted miniatures in long chains, hundreds altogether. I had determined that I would lighten the recitals by interspersing the sonatas with liberal helpings of dances, which I also wanted to learn, and hopefully record at a later stage. At least they seemed straightforward enough. A chance remark made to me by Malcolm Bilson kept nagging, though. I had played the 12 Grazer Walzer, D 924, in the first round at Leeds, and he had said something along the lines of “Of course, they were never meant to be played in that order, they were just put together that way for publication”. I needed to know what he had meant, so I immersed myself in literature on the subject in the inspiring surroundings of the new British Library rooms. My worst suspicions were confirmed: the sets of dances as published in my Henle edition were highly questionable. Many experts doubted whether Schubert had put the dances together into these sets, and whether he was at all interested in the order or context they were played in. This was not a problem if one merely wanted to play a few selected dances. But if one wanted to play large numbers of them, one needed to decide how they were to be assembled. In short, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Time was moving on, and the date for the first recital was not too far off, so I began to learn the first programme, intending to solve each problem as I came to it. I had opted for a chronological approach, even though this meant I would be beginning with some of the weaker sonatas; there would at least be an element of journey in the series, an inducement perhaps for the audience to join up for the long haul. The last recital would feature the last three sonatas, a mammoth event for all involved. The fruits of my extensive research were gradually written down, and I was designing a substantial brochure with a Schubert biography, texts on the individual works and photographs to help the audience understand more about what they were hearing.

The final and biggest challenge to my project came in the form of my collapsing marriage (my wife wasn’t as obsessed with Schubert as I was), and for a while I had serious doubts whether I would manage the daunting task under difficult personal circumstances. In the end, it was too late to give up, and gave me something to throw myself into. Who needs therapists when you can have Schubert?

The first recital came and went, with an enthusiastic audience and touching support from friends. The tricky question of what to do with fragmentary movements I had solved for myself by including only some, and breaking off where the manuscript ends, rather than playing someone else’s completion. To soften the blow, I linked the fragments to other movements following in the right key, and it seemed to work. The audience were fascinated to find all these “Unfinished” things by Schubert they had never heard of. The decision seemed appropriate in the context, although perhaps on another occasion I might decide differently. I was pleased with my solution to the vexed issues surrounding the Sonatas in E major, D 459, and E Minor, D 566: both sonatas are essentially compilations made by editors after Schubert’s death of movements which probably do not belong together. My solution put them both in the same concert, but split up in smaller groups and reordered. The audience got to hear all the movements, but in a new light.

The issue of the dances I had also cleared in my mind: there was little evidence to support either point of view in the debate (whether to play the sets as published or to make random selections), so on musical grounds I played the sets I found satisfying as published, and only found it necessary to make my own selections on very few occasions. The one set I still cannot decide on is the collection of “36 Original Dances”, D 365. It is Schubert’s first published set, and there is evidence he was involved directly, but it is a very long set, not terribly satisfying to sit through. Too many dances remain in the same key with very little in the way of forward motion. Nevertheless, there is a certain logic to the harmonic progression through all 36 dances, and without doing excessive violence to the pieces one can discern some sort of development.

What an experience, though, discovering all these musical gems! Each recital showed me new masterpieces: the Sonata in B Major, the fragmentary Sonata in F Minor, the Ecossaises D 299 and 421, the Waltzes D 145, the fragmentary Sonata in F Sharp, and many more works. It is true that there are some less inspired moments, as there will always be when one plays a complete cycle. But the lasting impression I received was of a composer obsessed with experimenting, never happy to stick to what he knows. Consider some of the six sonatas Schubert undertook in 1817: beginning with the well-known Sonata in A Minor, D 537, via the Haydnesque Sonata in A Flat, D 557 and the Sonata in B Major, D 575, to the F Sharp Minor fragment D 571. What a journey. What a wealth of beauty and ingenuity, and, perhaps surprisingly, pianism. For we know that Schubert was no great pianist, and had difficulty playing many of his own works. Yet in all this music one is struck time and again by the novel textures and sounds he was composing, all profoundly pianistic.

Luck, and Anne Holt, the tireless concert organizer, was with me, and a faithful band of listeners stayed with me throughout the eight recitals, even for the last gargantuan concert with the last three sonatas. Now I find myself preparing to undertake the whole series again, at other venues, and therefore look back at what the whole experience gave me. It is often said that to become a pianist, you need to master the Chopin Studies. Other pianists, such as my last teacher, Elisso Virssaladze, swear by Mozart. May I put in a good word for Schubert? The lightness, legato and tonal control needed to master his piano music can give a pianist everything he or she needs to tackle anything else in standard repertoire. I can only urge younger pianists to explore this wonderful area of music; it will benefit their hands as well as their minds!

©Béla Hartmann, 2004



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