Home listening: in stormy times, Schubert is balm for the soul

Two new piano recordings, by Duo Pleyel and Shai Wosner, provide complementary consolation on period and modern instruments

• “There’s no love song finer/ But how strange the change/ From major to minor”, as Cole Porter observed in his Great American Songbook classic Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (1944). Surely he had Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in mind when he wrote those words, though. In Schubert’s case it’s as often the change from minor to major, the light that comes from darkness, the smile out of the frown, that is strange, and affecting. Our own goodbyes, courtesy of Covid-19, include a farewell to normal concert life. There’s no “ev’ry time” here. Online streaming has become the new “live”, and recordings must quench all our other musical needs, unless we can make music ourselves (at a safe social distance).

undefined

One CD from the pile on my desk – showing a picture of a single gull flying over a dark, heaving sea – stood out. No surprise to find it was of music by Schubert, its title timely: Lebensstürme: Music for piano four-hands, performed by Duo Pleyel (Alexandra Nepomnyashchaya and Richard Egarr), on the Glasgow-based Linn label.

Lebensstürme translates as “storms of life”. No one quite matched the Viennese composer, dead by 31, in his capacity for compressing brief joy, sorrow, friendship, solace into a short song, or a simple change of key. “Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief,” he wrote. Yet music gave him purpose: “I compose every morning, and when one piece is done I begin another.” We might learn from his equanimity.

The title “storms of life” wasn’t Schubert’s. This work, the Allegro in A minor, D947, was written in May 1828, the last year of his life. It was eventually published in 1840 by Anton Diabelli, who thought up the name, presumably with an eye to the market. It has the weight and drama of the first movement of a sonata, opening with thunderous, emphatic chords – undeniably stormy – then skittering off with rushing accompaniment, and rapid scales passing between the four hands. Silences interrupt, like jerky, jumped grooves. The middle section, in a bizarrely unrelated key, rescues us from the grey-black opening. Tranquil and hymn-like, this glow of copper and bronze is short-lived.

• Duo Pleyel, as the name indicates, use a French Pleyel piano from 1848: bright-toned, almost acidic at the top but warm, with a clean, nimble action. The sense of four hands entwining across the keyboard (will anyone dare play duets, a perfect domestic activity, in this becalmed existence? A real question) is vivid, immediate. The instrument’s sound conjures an intimate Biedermeier drawing room of the sort Schubert might have known. A modern concert grand creates a different effect: bigger, softer edged, velvety, more resonant and blended. Both are right, depending on taste or mood, as American-Israeli pianist Shai Wosner

admirably proves in his new Onyx Classics double album of late Piano Sonatas (D845, D894, D958, D960), played on a Steinway.

Schubert: Piano Sonatas D845, D894, D958 and D960 Shai Wosner (piano) cover

These works are the glorious flowering of Schubert’s impossibly abundant, impossibly brief career. They recast our sense of time. Here, as in Lebensstürme, sudden silences halt the flow. Seemingly endless phrases, suspended in reverie, or at times nightmare, evoke mystery, anguish, longing. Each sonata, like life itself, is a restless tussle between continuity and fracture. We hear this, above all, in Schubert’s last major work, the Sonata in B flat, D960. It glimpses heaven, touches the void and ends, against the odds, in triumph. Both these striking and complementary discs, by Duo Pleyel and Wosner, quote Schubert himself: “Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain; and when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.” Major to minor, minor to major. Music for all times. Music for now.

Watch Shai Wosner play Schubert’s Sonata in G major, D894, Op. 78 (“Fantasie”) and Sonata in B flat major, D960

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Home listening: Bruckner, Mahler and Schubert
New releases from Robin Ticciati and his Berlin band, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, plus Roderick Williams’s travels with Schubert

Fiona Maddocks

03, Mar, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Classical home listening: Schumann and Schubert string quartets and more
New releases from the Emersons, the Arod Quartet and Quartetto di Cremona

Fiona Maddocks

28, Nov, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Classical home listening: Schubert Symphonies 4 & 5; Zacara da Teramo
René Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra fizz in youthful Schubert. Plus, the complete works of a Renaissance eccentric

Fiona Maddocks

04, Sep, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Llŷr Williams’s Beethoven at Wigmore Hall; Marc-André Hamelin does Schubert
The Welshman’s nine sonata concerts arrive on box set; as does Hamelin. Plus: Inside Music gets better and better

Stephen Pritchard

06, May, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Leonardo the musician
Doulce Mémoire give us Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest hits, sort of. Plus, a virtuoso turn from Giovanni Antonini

Nicholas Kenyon

05, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Pappano’s Bernstein centenary tribute
Antonio Pappano and his Rome forces, joined by Beatrice Rana and Marie-Nicole Lémieux, show another side to Bernstein

Fiona Maddocks

05, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Home Listening: Arthur Sullivan’s serious side
Sullivan’s The Light of the World sees the light of day at last. Plus, the Fidelio Trio and new music on Radio 3

Stephen Pritchard

13, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Rachmaninov, Bach and Bartók
Novelty and freshness from pianists Behzod Abduraimov and Julien Libeer. Plus, a mystery podcast presenter…

Fiona Maddocks

01, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Home listening: Rachmaninov sends a postcard home
Steven Osborne excels in the Etudes-Tableaux, while Gergiev and the LSO blaze their way through the symphonies

Fiona Maddocks

29, Jul, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Amadio Freddi, anyone?
The Gonzaga Band do this late Renaissance composer proud, while Exaudi’s new Gesualdo disc is a stunner

Fiona Maddocks

25, Aug, 2019 @7:00 AM