Schubertiade Day 3-Ben Frith and Heidi Rolfe
Sunday, October 20
2:30 pm - 4:00 pm
Ben Frith & Heidi Rolfe
The last year of Schubert’s all too brief life was miraculously productive and saw the creation of several of his finest works, including all three works in this afternoon’s concert.
Schubert – Rondo in A Major D. 951
The Rondo in A major D. 951 is Schubert’s final work for piano duet in which he demonstrated one last time the inspired greatness and heartfelt beauty of melodic gifts that have never been matched in the history of music.
The work commences with a tender Allegretto quasi Andantino which may have been a folksong recalled from his youth. The melodic line is developed, decorated and ornamented until a second great subject in the dominant (E major) is reached. Schubert transforms it, modulates to remote keys and explores distant sonorities, holding back the most glorious climax until the coda. At the very end the rondo theme returns, overwhelmingly transformed.
Schubert – Fantasie in F Minor D. 940
Schubert’s first composition, written in 1810, was a Fantasie for piano duet and he returned to this genre in his final year and it has been said that this time we are in the presence of a kind of testament. It could be a farewell to numerous characters and to all the things Schubert loved.
The memoirs of Schubert’s friends are full of references to Caroline Esterházy, a long-term pupil of Schubert with who he had spent countless hours playing piano duets. In fact, Eduard von Bauernfeld wrote in February 1828. “Schubert was, in fact, head over heals in love with one of his pupils, a young Countess Esterházy.” Countess Caroline had grown into a beautiful woman and Karl von Schönstein writes in his later reminiscences “a poetic flame sprang up in Schubert’s heart for Caroline. This flame continued to burn until his death.” According to Schönstein, “Caroline had the greatest regard for him and for his talent but she did not return his love, although she surely must have been aware of his feelings.” Supposedly, she once reproached Schubert for having no composition dedicated to her, to which he replied, “What’s the point? Everything is dedicated to you anyway.” It is not entirely clear whether his feelings for Caroline brought him joy or sadness, but he did dedicate the Fantasie in F Minor to her. As countless critics and pianists have observed, “it is hardly fanciful to hear in the yearning central love duet an idealized expression of a relationship which social differences alone made impossible.”
Before Schubert, ‘Fantasie’ usually implied improvisatory material and structural freedom, but the F minor Fantasie is a tightly constructed work in which four movements are fused into one, to be played without pause. In complete contrast to the earlier “Wanderer” Fantasie for piano solo, this work commences with an unforgettable gentle, haunting theme. The progression of movements proves Schubert to be a master of transition, as each seems to flow inevitably from what precedes. The opening theme reappears in the fourth section, preceding a fugue and for one last time in the coda before the heart-wrenching dissonances of the closing measures.
On 26 March 1828, the anniversary of Beethoven’s death, Schubert gave, for the only time in his career, a public concert of his own works and this concert included the newly composed Fantasie.
Schubert – Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960
- Molto moderato
- Andante sostenuto
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza – Trio
- Allegro, ma non troppo – Presto
Schubert’s last three great piano sonatas were written in the astonishingly short space of a single month, September 1828. At the time, Schubert was greatly expanding his ideas and unlike many great composers who tended to concentrate their ideas towards the end of their careers, Schubert was still growing. It is a poignant paradox that these sonatas are the late works of a young composer. Schubert had intended to dedicate these sonatas to Hummel, one of the contemporary composers and pianists whom Schubert most admired.
Schubert’s last sonata in B flat major is by common consent, his greatest achievement in the form and one of the finest of all classical sonatas. It has a feeling of tranquility and ease – the ease of a master who has all the technical facility at his fingertips with which to express his ideas and emotions.
After 8 bars, the sublime calm of the opening is interrupted by a mysterious low trill. A second altered attempt brings the trill again and now the music is taken away from its home key of B flat into G flat, shortly after into F sharp minor and then back to F major, which is the next key to the original B flat. So at the very start of the movement, Schubert is subjecting some of his warmest, most lyrical music to strange tonal excursions and this is the essence of the movement.
The Andante Sostenuto in C-sharp minor is a movement comparable in style to the slow movement of the great String Quartet in C, D. 956, composed during the same period. This movement has been described as being one of the greatest harmonic peregrinations in all of music. In the main section, a sombre melody is presented over a relentless rocking rhythm. The central section is written in A major and presents a choral melody over an animated accompaniment and later touches upon B-flat major, the sonata’s home key. The main section returns with a variant of the original accompanying rhythm. A sudden, mysterious harmonic shift introduces the remote key of C major which eventually turns into E major and proceeds as before. The coda shifts to the tonic major, but is still haunted by glimpses of the minor mode.
The balanced scherzo not only produces a sense of contrasting liveliness and energy but does so by means of some almost wild modulations.
The finale opens with a held note which recurs at each return of the rondo theme. The first episode is long, with some dazzling tonal excursions and there is a curious hesitance near the end, as the theme is tried out in various keys and eventually all doubts are cast aside and the work ends with complete happiness.