Franz Schubert - Piano Sonata D 960 in B-flat major

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Franz Schubert
Piano Sonata D 960 in B-flat major

Paul Badura-Skoda
Bösendorfer Impérial Concert Grand 1923

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°95

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

 

There are certain obvious similarities between the style of Mozart's final three symphonies (1788) and that of Schubert's final three piano sonatas, dating from September 1828. Composed for no apparent outside reason, and in an extremely short period of time, these two "triads" represent, in their respective genres, an artistic summit. Each contains one work in a minor key and two in major keys, all united by an implicit cyclic relationship. To be sure, there are also differences : the conclusion of the "Jupiter" radiates an Apollonian joy, while the last Sonata is replete with serenity and nostalgia, much as though Schubert had sensed he only had a few more weeks to live.

In his critical study of the last three sonatas and despite his habitual intuitive clairvoyance, Schumann committed a serious error of judgment, one that is too often repeated without being examined : he believed he could detect a certain lessening - due to illness - of Schubert's creative faculties. There is no question of a weakening in his powers of composition here, however, but rather a deliberate flight into unexplored territory, towards the mountaintops where the wind blows cold. This new expressive domain explains why in spots there is a certain wild harshness, a hint of glacial fastness, hundreds of miles away from the flowering orchards of the composer's youth.

The beginning of the last Sonata expresses the dignity and detachment with which a man faces his final moments on earth. The melodic similarity with the Lied "Am Meer", which also dates from the year of Schubert's death, is surely not an accident. "Das Meer erglänzte weit hinab im letzten Abendscheine..., the sea sparkles in the distance under the final rays of the setting sun". The beauty of this image evoking the end of the day awakens a flood of nostalgic memories which, in the Lied as in the Sonata, are transmuted into uneasiness and anxiety. In the development section of the first movement, we should also admire the progressive and simultaneous transformation of the melodic line and the harmony of the third theme, a "Mozartian" theme reminiscent of the Lied "Der Wanderer". The almost literal quotation of the beginning of this Lied reaches, in the center of the movement, a dynamic summit fought with the despair of a human being who feels himself abandoned. Then the storm dies down, giving way - after a few outbursts - to the serene calm and resignation of the beginning.

The second movementAndante sostenuto has often been considered Schubert's masterpiece for piano. Written in the key of C-sharp minor, a far cry from the B-flat major principal key, it is a plaintive melody that the haunting beauty of the harmonies seems to carry in realms beyond pain. The middle section in A major, which brings consolation, recalls the atmosphere of the Lied "Der Lindenbaum" : "Und seine Zweige rauschten, als riefen sie mir zu : Komm her zu mir. Geselle hier find'st du deine Ruh..., and its murmuring branches seem to call me thus : Friend, come near me, here you will find rest". The plaintive cry returns, but the key modulates imperceptibly from minor to major (C, then C-Sharp), and the movement concludes on a note of timeless cheer.

The Sonata could very well end here, and if it did it would be somewhat similar to Beethoven's last Sonata, Opus 111. But Schubert elected to bring his listener - and himself as well, perhaps gently back to earth again, as in the Sonata in A major. With the exception of the lugubrious Trio in B-flat minor treated in dark tones of the instrument's bass register, the Scherzo "con delicatezza" is frivolous and feather-light, preparing the way for the final Rondo.

The latter opens on a question in C minor (the "false" key), followed a few measures later by an affirmative answer with a fall into B-flat major. A comparison is called for with Beethoven's last composition, the finale written after the fact for the Quartet Op. 130. The theme of this piece, in a joyous, dancing 2/4 time, also oscillates between C minor and B-flat major. This allusion to Beethoven may or may not be a real one, but the final movement of the Sonata in B-flat expresses the joy of the "Cherubinischen Wandersmannes", the unembittered farewell of the eternal wanderer; whose soul will no longer be disturbed by the last raging of the storm.

"Farewell to thee, my city! O happy, joyous home!
Come, my horse paws the earth with an impatient hoof. Accept once more this last, this final farewell. Never, no never yet hast thou seen me sad. Why should it be otherwise at the moment of farewell?" ("Abschied", poem by Ludwig Rellstab, set to music by Schubert in 1828, the year he died). 

Paul BADURA-SKODA
translated from the French adaptation by Yves Liron

Paul Badura-Skoda

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Originally he wanted to become an engineer but luckily he changed his mind. Nowadays, he is applauded in all the world's great concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. He makes extensive concert tours on all continents, plays with leading orchestras and can be found in the recording studios of the celebrated record companies. In either words, Paul Badura-Skoda is one of the most important pianists of our time.

One thing has remained with him from his early professional interests, the desire to "look behind the scenes", to understand the functioning and the impact of great musical works and, in playing them, to make the perception accessible to others. In this critical appraisal first editions and autographs are compared, the text deviations investigated and historical instruments are used. Not only does he play music, he also reflects on it, producing numerous cadenzas to Mozart concerti and style-sensitive completions of unfinished works by Mozart and Schubert. The musical personality of Badura-Skoda is characterized by complete immersion in music, a passionate search for the essential and a sense of artistic responsibility, but not in a technical or academical sense. "Paul Badura-Skoda makes us feel something which is rare in a professional musician, that he loves music with every part of his being", a critic once said.

Paul Badura-Skoda was born in Vienna in 1927. His unusual musical talent very soon became to the fore and was appropriately encouraged. Unforgettable concert performances by Edwin Fischer, Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler during the war strengthened Badura-Skoda's intention to become a musician. The young artist was not only impressed by the remarkable interpretations he heard but more so by the evidence of the ethical power of music they provided, an aspect that he still emphasizes today.

In 1945 Badura-Skoda entered the Vienna Conservatory. Only two years later he attracted attention when he won the first prize of the Austrian Music Competition. A scholarship for Edwin Fischer's master classes in Lucerne was the prize, and also the starting point of the maestro's friendship, which laid the foundation for Badura-Skoda's artistic future. A few years later the young pianist became Fischer's assistant, and after Fischer's death, he continued the tradition of his master classes in Vienna, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Siena. Even today, Badura-Skoda still keeps close contact with young artists. Again and again he devotes precious time and enthusiasm to the strenuous office of jury member in important piano contests and advises young artists. No-one who has heard him speak about music with warmth and perception in his soft Viennese voice, can ever forget it.

In 1949 Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan became aware of Badura-Skoda's outstanding talent. They invited him to play concerts, and practically overnight the young Viennese pianist became a world-famous artist. He made a spectacular debut at the Salzburg Festival; and at his first concert in New York, in 1953, the hall was quickly sold out, something that hardly anyone before him had experienced. This sensational success was repeated a few years later at his debut in Tokyo. Record companies were not far behind, for years he was the pianist who had the largest number of long-playing records on the market.

Since then, Badura-Skoda has become a regular and celebrated guest at the most important music festivals. The conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Joseph Krips, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Hermann Scherchen, Artur Rodzinsky, Lorin Maazel, Georg Szell, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Georg Solti and the violinist David Oistrakh have been among his famous partners. He has recorded a vast repertoire, more than two hundred long-playing records and dozens of compact discs appeared, including complete cycles of the piano sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Badura-Skoda does not limit himself to play the works of the classical Viennese composers, his repertory ranges from baroque to modern music. Indeed, Badura-Skoda does not agree with narrow specialization. He conducts, composes, works in musicological areas, writes books on music and collects. Besides a huge archive of autograph microfilm copies and first editions, he is the proud owner of an extensive collection of historical keyboard instruments. It is a unique experience to be shown around this treasury by the owner himself.

1976 the Austrian State honoured Paul Badura-Skoda by the "Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst", 1978 Badura-Skoda received the "Bösendorfer-Ring" which was given only to Wilhelm Backhaus before, 1988 he received the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna, 1993 the artist was nominated "Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur" and 1997 "Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres". At the occasion of his 80th birthday Paul Badura-Skoda was honoured by the Austrian Government receiving the Große Silberne Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich and by the City of Vienna he received the Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um das Land Wien. The University of Mannheim in Germany honoured him by the title Doctor Honoris Causa.


Bösendorfer Impérial Concert Grand

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It is a nice coincidence that my first acquaintance with this outstanding concert grand took place in a flat at Bösendorferstraße 9, in Vienna. Hermann May, an engineer, had a private recording studio in his flat where I recorded some works to offer them as a Christmas gift to my mother. I was 14 years and I had never played on a concert grand before. The recording came out amazingly well. Hermann May, who had first looked at me quite sceptically, was very pleased with my playing. Soon after that I made more recordings and with the years we became friends, a friendship which lasted until his death. Hermann May was one of the first producers who made live recordings of concerts and opera performances with the poor means of that time. After the war he modernized his equipment and established a sound archive which soon became world famous. Many great musicians came to him such as Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Backhaus and Friedrich Gulda.

Only years after that first meeting, when I had already played in several continents, I became aware that the instrument was one of the most beautiful pianos of our time. I tried to buy it from him for my collection of pianos, but to no avail. Though Hermann lived in quite modest conditions, he did not want to give the instrument away during his lifetime. However, by a clause in his testament I was given the possibility to acquire this piano after his death.

It is one of the earliest Imperial concert grand with eight octaves, from bottom C to C5 and has the production number 23 274. Investigations at the Bösendorfer archive revealed that it had been completed in 1923 and sold for 5 Million Crowns. From the still existing attached sheet one can deduct that the work for this grand had already started in 1916. The assembling was carried out in 1918, the finishing in 1922 and the final control in November 1923. A particular specification  determined that the bass strings Röslana strings, should be coated with iron wire. This might be a reason for the exceptionally sonorous, warm bass sound of this instrument. A moving remark can be found on the still existing order form : "Please carry out the finishing with utmost care".

I don't think that it would be possible nowadays to build an instrument with similar care and in a production process of seven years. One is reminded of the individual way the great violins in Cremona were handmade. As with violins the actual production had been preceded by yearlong process of drying carefully selected spruce for the soundboard. Of particular merit are the sensitive action and the quality of the feltcovered hammers. That felt, prepared by hand, is somewhat softer and more elastic than of that modern hammers. As a result these hammers produce less volume but more singing quality than the modern ones. Needless to say this delicate production of sound is not apt for every style of music. Yet it is ideally suited for the demi-teintes of Debussy's music and the works of some of his contemporaries as the late Brahms, Fauré, Ravel, Granados, Albeniz, Scriabine. Not loudness but beauty of sound was the ideal of composers and piano makers alike.


tracks

Sonate D 960 en Si bémol majeur/B-flat major/B-dur
Molto moderato 
Andante sostenuto
Scherzo. Allegro vivace con delicatezza
Allegro, ma non troppo

Review

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°95
Selected by "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact
© 2018 Harmonic Classics