SCHUBERT Franz, Piano Sonata No.20 in A D959

In May 1838, the Viennese firm of Diabelli published Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. Schubert had originally intended to dedicate this trilogy of sonatas to the pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, but by the time they appeared in print Hummel, too, was dead and the publisher dedicated them instead to Robert Schumann, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Schubert’s music. Schumann’s love of Schubert’s music had begun as a very private passion, as he wrote when reviewing the newly-published sonatas: ‘Time was when I spoke of Schubert reluctantly, and then only at night to the trees and the stars.’ In turn, Schumann’s great protégé Brahms wrote to his friend Adolf Schubring about Schubert, in words that could almost be a description of parts of Schubert’s A major Sonata in this concert: ‘Where else is there a genius like his, which soars with such boldness and certainty to the heavens, where we see the very greatest enthroned? He impresses me as a child of the gods who plays with Jove’s thunder and occasionally handles it in an unusual manner. But he plays in a region and a height which others cannot hope to attain.’ 

Composed in September 1828, two months before Schubert’s premature death, the A major Sonata opens with a noble first subject, soon contrasted with delicate triplets. Some typically adventurous harmonic excursions eventually arrive at the serene second subject. All this material is worked out in a spacious, unhurried sonata-form. The main theme of the slow movement (in F sharp minor) suggests a kind of cradle song, interrupted by a highly charged central passage full of dissonance and drama (pianist Alfred Brendel characterised it as ‘unease and horror’). The Schubert scholar Brian Newbould has written that in the delectable Scherzo, Schubert ‘uses the piano as percussionist and songster by turns’, while the finale combines elements of sonata form and rondo to create a sublime movement anchored by a gentle song-like main theme. 


Nigel Simeone 


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