IN: Reviews

The One I Didn’t Hear


The right time for spouting about Schubert’s last piano music would have been last Sunday, when Jonathan Biss played the last in his series of three concerts at the Gardner Museum, each featuring one of Schubert’s final sonatas. But I wasn’t there to hear it, because it had been “super-sold-out” by the time I would have got a ticket.

The main offering was the B-flat Major Sonata, D 960, completed in September 1828, two months before Schubert died. As I have implied previously in these pages, the three last sonatas offer a spectrum of structure and personality. The C minor Sonata, D 958, is considered the most classical, even Beethovenian, of the three; the A major, D 959, the most intellectual; and the B-flat the most reflective and innig as well as the longest, at more than 45 minutes. Everyone remembers the exceptionally lengthy first movement (more than 20 minutes) of the B-flat, with its rumbling left-hand trill on a half cadence in m. 8, coming to a dead stop; and most of us will perk up ears at exotic harmonic progressions, such as this one from F major to C-sharp minor:

Many writers about this sonata particularly emphasize the subtle serenity of the slow movement, which begins in C-sharp minor, as though the example above were already pointing to it; others note a possible connection of the ii-V-I connection between the beginning of the finale and the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet. But these are the merely empyrean aspects of what Schumann, referring to the “Great” C major Symphony, D 944 (1825), meant by “heavenly length.”

So it was entirely suitable for Jonathan Biss to open the concert with Schubert’s B-flat major Impromptu, op. 142, no. 3 (D 935). This is a set of variations whose theme is “derived” from (which is to say, somewhat resembling) the Rosamunde ballet music theme (D 797) that Schubert also used in his A Minor String Quartet , op. 29, D 804. Together with the “Sei mir gegrüsst” variations in the Fantasy for violin and piano, D 934, these are Schubert’s last essays in variation form. Characteristically, the fourth variation is in the flat submediant key, G-flat major — foreshadowing the same key succession at m. 20 of the B-flat Major Sonata.

I put forward all these perhaps enlightening but hardly useful observations by way of partial atonement for my failure to attend the concert I had very much wanted to hear, having already faithfully reported on its two predecessors. I hope someone who was there will send a comment reporting on the new work that Jonathan Biss played, and about his performance in general which I am sure was inspired and excellent.

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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  1. It’s a crying shame that you missed an utterly sublime performance of a truly ineffable piece, the undoubted masterwork of the piano literature that was Schubert’s “swan song.”

    However, what is equally a shame – and a very much persistent one – is your own forced absence because this concert was, ostensibly, “super-sold-out” (in your – and undoubtedly their – phrase). And yet, there were several vacant seats, even in the First Balcony, my preferred locus, acoustically.

    I have been complaining to the Gardner for some time now about their policy of not releasing seats, despite the often-unconscionable number of no-shows. One solution might be to preserve a small number of seats, in each section, as “rush tickets” – to be made available to people *actually* on the premises and willing and eager to attend…

    And – were I, say, Emperor Franz Joseph – I would certainly set aside one ticket for the esteemed critic of the BMI!

    Comment by Douglas Teich, MD — May 8, 2024 at 3:00 pm

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