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Jonathan Biss Essays Last Three

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Jonathan Biss will be featuring Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in a series of three Sunday recitals which began yesterday in the ISGM’s Calderwood Hall. The others will follow on March 24th and April 28th. On Sunday we heard a vigorous reading of the mighty C Minor Sonata, D 958, which Schubert composed in September 1828, two months before he died. [for a debate on whether he knew he was dying read the comments HERE] This is the least popular of the three, possibly because a certain pending mortality hovers over the fateful key. Biss’s thoughtful program notes mention this in connection with “the most Beethovenian of Schubert’s great works,” noting that Schubert had been a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral a little more than a year earlier

The key of C minor is a less-frequent tonality in Schubert’s corpus, but it dominates some memorable examples: the “Tragic” Symphony no. 4, D 417, the Quartettsatz D 703, the Impromptu op. 90 no. 1, D 899, and some of the great songs in Winterreise, D 911, such as “Die Krähe” — “treue bis zum Grabe.” C minor was also, no surprise, a “heroic” key in Beethoven, not just in the Fifth Symphony and the Marcia funebre of the Third, but in many other works all the way to the first movement of the Sonata op. 111, whose Coda has echoes of mortality in this Schubert sonata and also, just three years later, in Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, op. 10 no. 12.

While a Beethovenian portent is signaled in Schubert’s Sonata only in the first four measures, the entire remainder of the work is an energetic and even joyful flight from mortal inevitability, and Biss brought out all of this grand tour to the full. The bittersweet second movement, in small-rondo form, is an interior dialogue with moments of high drama. The Menuetto third movement is notable for its oddly unsymmetrical phrase structure (rather like the finale of the Octet, D 803), yet one could easily dance to it. The finale, 717 bars of unrelenting trochaic 6/8, was a ride of “heavenly length” to escape hell.

Biss opened the recital with no. 1 of the Four Impromptus, op. 142, D 935 — a sequel, as Schubert had intended, to the much-better-known first series, op. 90, D 899 — but which various later writers have contended were supposed to be a four-movement sonata. No. 1 is certainly a sprawling sonata form, with abundant improvisatory rippling A-flat major, and a good choice for a prelude to the tonal kinship in the C Minor Sonata to follow.

Before the intermission Biss offered a newly composed work, Expansions of Light in three movements, by 24-year-old Tyson Gholston Davis, and commissioned by the Terezin Music Foundation. The outer movements, each an “Arietta”, began with widely spaced thin-textured gestures, high and low on the piano with a wide spectrum of dynamics, and ended similarly but with gestures in bunches and chords more than measured notes. The middle movement, “Caprice,” was a rapid, episodic melody in regularly flowing 16ths such as Elliott Carter might have written with a scorrevole marking. The composer explained the sources of his inspiration from Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract expressionist painting “Winter Light.”

After the second half traversal of the triumphant D 958, an enthusiastic audience demanded an encore. Biss complied with Schubert’s familiar and beloved Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90, no. 3.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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