Schubert Piano Sonata no. 4 in C, D. 537

performed by Mitsuko Uchida

We’ll get around to the other incomplete sonatas and stuff later, but for now, we feature the first piano work of his that really blew me away, and the earliest completed sonata. I was fascinated with his Wanderer fantasy a while back, but in a different way than with this sonata. It blew me away.

The overwhelming feeling I have about this entire work is a fiercely passionate tenderness, a lyrical vulnerability that’s so personable, so endearing, so moving, that appears in many of Schubert’s works. The first movement begins with a powerful, driving 6/8 melody, like the bow of a large ship plowing through the ocean. It’s strong and unwavering, but also romantically sweeping, just the slightest bit swaying or lyrical. This first little introduction blew me away the very first time I heard it. It draws you right in for the meaty descending line, contrasted with fluttering higher notes in the right hand.

It is not insignificant that this is Schubert’s first swing at a piano sonata where he makes contact and follows through. Blair Johnston at AllMusic suggests the first two sonatas were incomplete because the composer [in so many words] didn’t yet have the chops to finish what he’d started, but here, he does it. Johnston says the below about D. 537 in contrast with no’s 1 and 2:

This Fourth Sonata dates from a year-and-a-half later, and the improvement is understandably even more pronounced. Banished from this Allegro ma non troppo are the imitations of Mozart and early Beethoven that fill much those two pieces’ opening movements, and in their place is a rich lyric vein all Schubert‘s own. The swaying opening theme, one of the gentlest “fortes” anywhere, and the swirling, buttermilk second subject are both especially pleasing.

I don’t know that I’d describe the major-key second subject as “buttermilk,” maybe honey. What’s for sure is that it is at once a perfect, seemingly natural progression from the first subject, one leading to the other, but… when that first A minor subject comes back, it’s a bit stronger, like that gasp you have when you feel like you’re falling in a plane on descent, that runs through you for a split second.

The development is at times delicate, with repeated notes and the sweetest of sweet ppp, only to be cleaved like the hull of a boat breaking slicing waves in two. The development is varied, but all related-sounding, develops the content satisfyingly, and there’s a persistent undercurrent, a heartbeat to the whole movement. You’ll notice, though, that when our opening, dramatic, nautical theme reappears after the development, it’s not in A minor, but D minor. It doesn’t show up in A minor again until the beginning of a little coda that rounds out the movement. Apparently Schubert loves to do this kind of thing.

Remember what I said earlier about passionate tenderness or whatever? The opening movement I felt was passionate, driving, bold, but what follows? Allegretto quasi andantino. Longer even than the first movement, mostly due to repeats of many, many sections within it, it begins with a bare, tender, lyrical, very simple melody in the right hand over short little chords in the bass. It’s charming, but just the slightest bit bittersweet or melancholy. What follows is a more filled out, pianistic section, but no more charming than what opened. This tender, sweetly lyrical, nostalgic expression stays with us for most of the second movement, but the very middle of the movement (the longest passage, it seems) has some darker undertones, and begins to reach for a breakout of emotion, but the imminent climax cools down to round out the movement in the manner it began. It’s a stunningly beautiful collage of related but different things.

The third movement begins with some dramatic scales upward, and a downward trickling answer, sort of in contrast with the opening of the work, but maybe not intentional…? While everything up to this point has struck me as solidly, uniquely Schubert, I feel I hear Beethoven coming through here. After these up and downward runs, the first thing that presents itself as a melody is a breath of fresh air, really pleasant, and leading to some darker harmonic areas. It still strikes me as very Beethoven-ian in its color, contrast, drama, and technical areas. It even seems to be a sonata-movement of sorts, with a repeat from the very top through the scales. It’s also the shortest movement of this three-movement sonata. Part of what calls Beethoven to mind is what I hear as possibly orchestral writing and coloring, like we’ve heard from Beethoven, most recently in the fourth sonata. There are repeated notes, lines of the bass, certain chirps, areas that have the vividness of an orchestra, which I now (thanks to Andras Schiff) attribute to Beethoven’s piano writing.

The third movement, with no development, begins to cool down, like it might end quietly, but perhaps we are starting to know better. Instead of a cool fade-out like Beethoven (surprisingly) gave us, this fourth closes with one last hammer of a chord.

This was the work that whispered in my ear that “Schubert is special.” Listen not just to his symphonies, the things for which he in his lifetime was least known for, but to the more intimate music: that for solo piano or quartet or voice, and this is where the man shines, where one hears the deep, simple, but incredibly rich lyricism that makes his symphonies come alive. Listen to a work like this piano sonata and then go listen to any of the first three or four symphonies (or the fifth, coming up next month) and then you understand what it is behind all the lively, shimmery instruments, their spirit, their soul comes from Schubert’s intense lyricism.

This weekend, we’ll be embarking on his first two string quartets. I know, I know, they’re nothing compared to the late works, but I haven’t gotten there yet. But we will, and in the there-and-back journey that it will be to know him early-works-first, get to the late stuff and then go back to the juvenilia, I’m sure there will be more insight and appreciation for what they represent, and I talk about that in those articles, but for now, this is what we have, his first of the completed sonatas that date from 1817. We’ll get to the other, earlier, also incomplete works later, but there’s no rush. Savor the Schubert. Stay tuned.

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