Tablet - Portrait

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Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert's final three piano sonatas -- stunning achievements that only began to grab a place in pianists' repertoires during the latter half of the twentieth century -- were all finished in September 1828, just two months before the composer died. The first of these three massive and challenging sonatas, at least as far as numbering goes, is the Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958, sometimes called No. 19; like the other two piano sonatas of 1828, it is a work that Schubert dedicated to the pianist Johann Hummel. Hummel had a year earlier been present at a private evening of Schubert lieder and had expressed his admiration for the composer in the highest terms. The Sonata, however, was not published until 1839, a few years after Hummel's death, and the publisher unjustly struck Schubert's dedication from the piece and made a new one to Robert Schumann.

Schubert had, by 1828, come a long way from his days as a teenage pupil of Antonio Salieri; he still, however, cherished the traditional four-movement sonata blueprint. In the C minor Piano Sonata these four movements are marked Allegro, Adagio, Allegro (the minuet and trio), and Allegro.

The opening Allegro begins as a grim, stone-faced affair in punctuated chords; the first thought is soon given a new spin with an Alberti-bass style accompaniment. The second subject of this sonata-allegro movement is a tender, legato notion; most of the unusual development section is concerned with a chromatically meandering idea in the bass. Eventually the right hand adorns this mysterioso bassline with chromatic scales up and down the keyboard. There are few Schubert endings as inutterably stark as that of this first movement.

The presence of an Adagio in a Schubert piano sonata is something of a peculiarity -- adagio was never one of the composer's preferred slow movement tempo indications. The movement is in the noblest kind of A flat major, and has a melody that, in both shape and treatment, hearkens back to Beethoven's serene slow movements. The triplet-ridden, unstable contrasting material is more typically Schubertian.

The minuet is full of metric witticisms, or at least rhythmic quirks, the most immediately obvious of which are the full-measure rests that mark the return of the opening tune just before the easygoing A flat major trio.

The finale is immense; its constant horse-gallop rhythm embraces a far-flung tonal plan. After the last of several tuneful efforts has been wiped clean, nearly a hundred bars of the unrelenting horse-gallop draws the movement to its terse final cadence.