Daniel Barenboim has recorded Franz Schubert’s complete Piano Sonatas on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The new release arrives internationally on August 18, 2014. Order the album here.
Spending upwards of six hours a day recording all of the sonatas by Schubert, the experience offered news insights into the composer’s work. Here below is a reflection by Daniel Barenboim:
Schubert’s piano sonatas are something of a special case in music history. Only a few of them, such as the G major “Fantasie-Sonata”, were printed during his lifetime; the rest were published posthumously, and it was only with the publication of Deutsch’s systematic catalogue in the 20th century that they finally came to light. For various reasons, they were long seen by musicians as minor works. There’s one very telling story which seems plausible enough to me: back in 1934, the great pianist Artur Schnabel ran into the composer Sergei Rachmaninov at Abbey Road Studios in London. When asked what he was doing there, he answered: “I’m recording the Schubert sonatas.” Rachmaninov was a bit taken aback, and asked, “Really? Did Schubert write sonatas too?” Now Rachmaninov was, of course, an erudite, highly intelligent musician, no question about it – it was just that at the time, so few people were aware of Schubert as a composer of piano sonatas.
And, if I’m honest, for much of my life I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to these wonderful works either. They barely played any role in my studies in the late 1940s. The A major Sonata was well known, but even the wonderful C minor was rarely, if ever, performed. For many years I was focused on other things, and these works simply passed me by. I had browsed through them, yes, and I’d played a few of them at home, but I had never explored them as a complete set. It wasn’t until 1978, when I was preparing the Impromptus and the C minor Sonata, among other things, for concerts to mark the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death, that I came across his late sonatas. I was immediately captivated by them, and curious to find out more about them, but it’s taken me till now to find enough peace and time to give them my full attention.
A project like this – the opportunity to focus exclusively on one composer – is a real luxury. I began to play the sonatas during my summer holidays and then I took them up again during the winter holidays at home. And now, having had the opportunity to sit alone with Schubert in a recording studio for more than six hours a day, I realise what a vital role these works played in his all-too-short musical life.
When we look back over a composer’s career, we often become aware that some works more than others act as a kind of intimate journal of their lives. With Beethoven, it wasn’t the symphonies, as one might think, but the piano sonatas and quartets. Those are his most personal compositions. With Mozart, it’s perhaps the Da Ponte operas and the piano concertos. Where Schubert’s concerned we’ve always assumed that his Lieder are the touchstone, but I believe the piano sonatas are most certainly part of his journal too. When I was recording the full set of completed sonatas it became my ambition, for the audience and for myself, to shed new light on his life and works – to breathe life into that musical journal of his. It turned out to be an intense and fascinating voyage into these microcosms of harmonic sophistication.
With some composers, the journal is easy to read. We all know that Beethoven had his early, middle and late periods. But what about Schubert, who died at 31? The amazing thing is that we can see how incredibly quickly he developed, only to have his life and career cut so tragically short. We can but imagine what might have happened if he had lived longer! I am convinced that he would have become one of the most revolutionary musicians of all time. As it is, in the music he did leave us we can hear traces of Bruckner, not to mention of Johann Strauss – sometimes when listening to his sonatas you feel as if you’re at a pianistic New Year’s Concert. It’s quite astonishing!
What is particularly striking, when you immerse yourself in his sonatas, is that Schubert is a master of contrast. Unlike, say, Wagner, he doesn’t need a big, broad dynamic apparatus to achieve the effects he wants. His contrasts are often based on modulations in the harmony or on a deliberate uncertainty between major and minor. I personally feel a close affinity to this wealth of variety and sudden changes in temperament. It has nothing to do with effort, as it does in Wagner, where that effort is part of the expressive structure. With Schubert it’s not like that – there’s usually laughter amid the tears with him.
His sonatas are therefore also revelatory because they achieve something people rarely can: they bring conflicting emotions together in harmonious unity. Sometimes a single motif can evoke a sense of joy and, simultaneously, provide a glimpse into an abyss of unspeakable melancholy. The truth is, it’s impossible to put all this into words. But that’s the whole point of music: if we could explain it, we wouldn’t have to play it.
For me, the process of recording all the Schubert sonatas in one go was also about exploring the effect this music has on us. After conducting something like Götterdämmerung, of course you can’t just go home and forget about it – it’s too overwhelming an experience for that. But I was surprised at how Schubert affected me: having spent six hours or more in intimate communion with his music, I would find myself in a place of total quietude and contentment. The infinite feeling of happiness which I discovered during those hours resonates to this very day. For my belated encounter with Schubert’s sonatas I am filled with gratitude.
– Daniel Barenboim