Franz Schubert – Sonatas D. 958 & D 959 (Maurizio Pollini)

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The Beethoven worship of the C Minor was almost too much at first, which makes sense given the context: Schubert’s last sonatas were all written a year after Beethoven’s death in 1827 (and Schubert was in attendance of the funeral of a man whom he revered). Famously, “Sonata in C Minor, D 958”’s first movement’s theme shares the same key, the same time signature (3/4) and chromatic movement in the right hand as Beethoven’s “Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor, WoO 80.” And Charles Fisk further points out that the second movement of Schubert’s sonata “holds distinct echoes of the slow movements […] of Beethoven’s two early C-Minor sonatas.” I, for one, simply cannot hear an introduction of a loud, heavy c-minor chord with the chord melody completed by quicker ones, without thinking of the Grave theme introducing “Sonata No. 8 in C Minor” (a.k.a. “Pathetique”).

(Not to say that the A Major is exempt from all this – the final movement is inspired by Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 16 in G Major.”)

I’m not the first person to point all these out, and Schubert’s late sonatas didn’t receive attention until a century after they were written – I’m sure the criticisms went something like “sounds too much like Beethoven without sounding like Beethoven”, especially from a duration perspective (each sonata here is 30-40 minutes each). Which is unfair, because Schubert’s late sonatas – all three of them, though this package only contains the first two – are a stunning document of melody, harmony, rhythm (Yes, rhythm! Play the fourth movement of the C Minor Sonata immediately!) and, as a result of all three, colour. I mean, check out the sheer contrast in the A Major: the heavy chords of the first movement transitioning into the lighter melody; the playful third movement following the dreamier second movement, which bookends a chaotic storm (which Pollini plays slightly – ever so – faster than most I’ve heard).

Put it this way: it has been posited that Schubert may have been on his deathbed at the time of writing his last sonatas. This theory makes sense to me, given the number of ideas in each sonata and how Schubert keeps going from one to the next. Some have and might write this bubbling of ideas off as the mark of uncertainty; not knowing where the composition ought to go but directing it anyway. Personally, I think it’s the mark of anxiety: a man with so many ideas that he felt he had to put all of them to paper before he died.

Anyway, the A Major’s more popular than the C Minor, but I like that one more: the first movement is so much more than its theme’s homage to “Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor, WoO 80,” and the second movement has less drama than that of the A Major while being no less imaginative: the flicker of melody in the right hand during the theme; budding crescendos of repeated chords. Elsewhere, check out the contrast of the main theme in the third movement, from the kinetic quickness in the right-hand (with loud left-hand chords) to a quieter and sobering tone, using the same chord repeated four times as a transition (recalling the first movement). And thrill to the horse-race of the fourth final movement, and marvel at the transition into the dreamier section (around 3 minutes in), or the visceral climax as both hands play blurring scales across the keyboard (around 6 minutes in).

Side note: if you liked either, I really suggest seeking out the B Flat Major, which is certainly more lyrical than either; Pollini also has his own rendition, released around the same time. The theme of the first movement of the B Flat Major might be my favorite moment of the entire trilogy; Schubert’s full harmonies creating a lush, pastoral effect and the left hand’s trilling at the end of each passage creating an ominous contrast. Seasons change. Persons change with them; dark clouds ahead.

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