IN: Reviews

Stunning and Surreal Schubert


Vitlaus von Horn
Vitlaus von Horn

Vitlaus von Horn returned to the Frederick Collection on October 9th, with two late sonatas of Franz Schubert. 

At his last appearance at the Frederick Collection, von Horn played an obscure 19th -century work by J.W. Hassler, comprising 360 miniature preludes, hardly any of which had the chance to develop any harmonic daring. But a Frederick audience is of an enduring kind, and that program of excessive dominant and tonic harmony was well received. This time, in an almost equal in span (minus about 350 final cadences), the lengthy Schubert sonatas in A minor, D. 845, and the great B-flat major, D. 960, unfolded with every repeat observed.

Von Horn’s choice to take every repeat meant, of course, that the audience heard perhaps the most overlooked eight bars in the history of piano music—the first ending in the exposition of the B-flat major sonata, with its “out of nowhere” syncopations and a sudden dramatic outburst, totally foreign in the prevailing serenity. Perhaps this curiosity alone was worth the price of admission.

The pianist’s  notes also justified the ticket. Although perhaps yet one editorial pass short of excellence, they stood well above normal such fare and deserve to be read [here].

The performance itself was both striking and surreal. Surrounded by lighted candles, von Horn clearly intended to take extra steps to emulate the 1830s, with a period Bösendorfer fortepiano (more about this, later). His playing was idiosyncratic, at least by current standards. Never before had this listener heard so many tempo fluctuations and so many departures from the printed score. For example, von Horn, clearly intentionally, took the first movement of the A minor sonata at two different tempos—one for the opening soulful motive, and another for the rest of the piece. Most performers attempt—seemingly struggle—to make one tempo work for all the contrasting material. Von Horn eschewed such compromise. In another unexpected touch he executed the scherzo in two different meters—half in triple meter as indicated in the score, and the other half with hemiolas, presenting unmistakably double meter from groups of two bars written as measures of three. This author is familiar with many interpretations of this piece, and reviewing some available on YouTube confirms that what we heard on October 9th  was out of the ordinary (von Horn’s recording of the A minor sonata on a modern piano is available here).

All these extravagances and idiosyncrasies gave a surreal feel to this concert, with one almost feeling transported back in time.

The famous B-flat major sonata, lasting over 45 minutes with repeats, can be taxing to hear, though Von Horn did his best to maintain our interest in this beautiful, but sometimes very inward, piece, but the result seemed stunning, or bizarre, depending on one’s point of view. For example, as foreshadowed in his program notes, he maintained a generally quiet dynamic level for the first three movements—and that’s over 30 minutes of music. As if to attempt to compensate for this lack of dynamic contrast, von Horn introduced sometimes drastic tempo changes where nothing in Schubert’s score suggests such variety. When asked about it after the concert, he smiled and replied, “My teacher told me, his teacher told him, his teacher told him, and Beethoven told him,” then turned around as if to abort any further interviewing.

This devil-may-care approach was in evidence throughout the entire recital, beginning with von Horn’s opening remarks, in which he announced that he was there to “surpass András” (presumably referring to András Schiff, who has recorded a good deal of Schubert on modern, and recently historical, pianos). Von Horn’s similarly idiosyncratic interpretation of the B-flat major sonata on a modern piano is available here. This admitted rivalry added to the surreal atmosphere of the concert. Usually artists do not announce such intentions quite so bluntly (even if Vladimir Horowitz was famously concerned about what “Arthur” (Rubinstein) did).

As with his earlier concert for the Frederick collection, von Horn chose an 1831 piano that may be been Herr Bösendorfer’s first. The instrument was adequate for the job, but a better choice seems to have been bypassed. When, last year, this writer was treated to a leisurely after-hours look at the Fredericks’ impressive collection of pianos, he had to resort to some cajoling to persuade the caretaker-owners to show him their specimen by Conrad Graf– something of a “holy grail” for fortepiano collectors, the conventional wisdom being that Graf made the best middle-romantic Viennese pianos, and that even the best modern builders cannot match Graf’s well-preserved originals. Whether the seminal Bösendorfer was again trotted out for von Horn’s Schubert recital because the artist preferred to stick with what he knew, or because the Fredericks elected to keep their Graf under wraps, this writer declines to guess.

Despite the surreal atmosphere—or, perhaps, because of it—the audience seemed vigorously engaged, favoring von Horn with standing ovations at both intermission and conclusion.

As the reception that followed the concert wound down and most audience members had left, but von Horn came back with the last two Impromptus from Opus 90—a delightful nightcap for those who remained. But perhaps the highlight of the evening was the unscheduled “appetizer” von Horn played before embarking on his reading of the last sonata—the charming Musical Moment in F minor, which received a straight-forward, non-idiosyncratic reading; at the conclusion, one could literally hear gasps from the audience. This writer might have preferred such simple and convincing treatment of the two big sonatas.

Steven R. Manley retired as Head Piano Technician, harpsichord technician, and instructor of piano technology with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1993.

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