Dogsticks logo  
    Home        Book Reviews        Poetry        Music        Photos        oBlog        Links        Contact    


Music - Classical

Random thoughts on my favourite pieces of classical music. Pick a composer or just scroll at leisure.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Frédéric Chopin
Joseph Haydn
Gustav Mahler
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Franz Schubert

Ludwig van Beethoven


Piano Sonata in B Flat, 'Hammerklavier' (Op. 106)

Beethoven's longest and meatiest piano sonata. It doesn't venture into the same meditative realms as his ethereal late sonatas (Opp. 109, 110 and 111), but it is perhaps his most profound testimony to the battle of the spirit against despair.

The sonata's first movement centres round a muscular theme intermingled with whose forcefuless is a curious feeling of questioning and doubt. A very brief scherzo continues in a similar vein, but adding a certain note of offbeat flippancy to the proceedings. Then we come to the heart of the sonata, a mammoth 20-minute adagio of blistering sadness, and quite spectacular key shifts - one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of music I know. To round it all off is a merciless fugue that suggests a triumph over fate not by optimism, as in Beethoven's earlier works, but rather by sheer mental discipline. It is not easy listening, but it is certainly an appropriate end to this least complacent of works.

Recordings? Some have said that this sonata is virtually unrealisable in sound: however well it is played, one always feels that there are further subtleties and intensities to be teased out of it. Of the longer-standing recordings, my favourite is by Emil Gilels. His slow movement is unsurpassed, its every note imbued with feeling and given time to resonate with both its emotional significance and its position in the structure. The outer movements are taken at fairly measured pace, and don't have the raw energy Kovacevich gives them (see below); but they are delineated clearly and carefully. If it's the adagio sostenuto that you come to the sonata for, this is the recording to have.

Maurizio Pollini's recording is as fluent and polished as ever - to the extent, arguably, of sometimes crossing the line from restraint to uninvolvement.

Stephen Kovacevich, whose recordings of Beethoven's late sonatas in the 1990s won numerous awards, released his much-anticipated Hammerklavier in 2003. My opinion of this interpretation has fluctuated over the years, but I now rank it almost up there with Gilels'. There was never any issue with the outer movements; the concluding fugue, in particular, is played with a mixture of fluidity and intensity that I haven't heard in any other recording. My reservations have been with Kovacevich's very rapid slow movement, which clocks in at a full 3-and-a-half minutes less than Gilels'. Kovacevich applies his usual combination of steady tempo and strong dynamic contrasts, generating a tone of bleak austerity rather than personal grief which will not match everyone's idea of apassionato è con molto sentimento. But if not overwhelmingly moving like Gilels', it's a bold and interesting interpretation, and given the brilliance of the other three movements, when it comes to a choice between Gilels and Kovacevich I say you have to have both.

(A further recommendation for the Kovacevich CD is its inclusion of the 11 Bagatelles, Op. 119, every one a concise, ingenious and charming piece of music. They are all brilliantly played, with superb sound quality. As if that weren't enough, you get the "Les Adieux" sonata thrown in as well.)

[Return to top]

Quartet in B Flat (Op. 130)

Probably my favourite of Beethoven's late quartets, this is rich and defiant work whose overall character is defined by the forceful, lengthy opening and closing movements (by the latter, I refer to the original "Grosse Fuge", which was replaced by a more conventional movement when the "Fuge" was found too demanding by listeners).

There's no movement I don't enjoy in this piece, but the most generally celebrated, after the Grosse Fuge, is the fifth, the Cavatina. It's up there with the second movement of Schubert's Quintet as one of the great musical testaments to sorrow. As in the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata, though, anguish is finally conquered by ruthless intellectual will: the Fuge is surely the single loudest movement in the canon of chamber music.

I have two recordings of this, both by the Lindsay Quartet. The first, from 1987, is good, but the one from 2001 is better still, with intensity and dynamics notched up to the max.

[Return to top]

Symphony in E Flat (No. 3, "Eroica") (Op. 55)

Though a relatively early work, this remained Beethoven's favourite of his symphonies. It's not an opinion shared by most listeners, but the dissenters are illustrious. Notably, Hector Berlioz lamented the listening public's lack of appeciation of the work's depth and large-scale construction.

There is a simple reason for the Eroica's paucity of fans, namely that it contains few melodies that are instantly memorable. Indeed, the main motif of the opening movement is decidedly trite, so that the inattentive listener is liable to switch off after a few bars, mistaking it for some kind of Haydn derivative. (I love Haydn's string quartets, but can take or leave his symphonies.)

As with most listeners, so with me. But - without particular enthusiasm - I listened again, and again, and then suddenly, at perhaps the fourth or fifth expsosure, the tremendous build-up of suspense, and its final resolution, hit me. This fifteen-minute giant of a movement portrays a journey of the youthfully exhuberant soul: starting out full of bland optimism but, in the wonderful development section, encountering for the first time intimations of danger and suffering, that render all the more poignant the final resolution of the opening motif in the recapitulation. The moment-by-moment shifts in mood reflect the processes of constant recogitation and reaction of the self-aware mind - just as in Mozart's 40th Symphony, but more forcefully.

The second movement's funeral march works in a similar, but contrasting way. Again, it's not melodically memorable, but its emotional logic becomes more compelling with every listen. It confronts the suffering that was intimated in the development section of the first movement, periodically wringing out solace and meaning through confrontation with harsh reality. Many have seen it as a private meditation by Beethoven on his encroaching deafness.

The scherzo and the allegro molto that finish the symphony are shorter and less profound than the first two movements, but they represent a qualified restatement of the first movement's optimism. The interruption of the slow second movement, however, casts the upbeat vigour of these two movements in a different light than they would have on their own.

Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony to Napoleon, only to retract the dedication when the latter declared himself Emperor. It's both a public and a private piece of music - a declaration of support for the humanitarian ideals (if not the practice) of the French Revolution, but also a statement of defiance of fate's cruelty to him personally.

The writer JWM Sullivan claimed that the Funeral March of the second movement is too suggestive of a public occasion to be totally effective - after all, whose funeral is it? Not Napoleon's, and not the composer's own. I think this over-literal interpretation is missing the point: it's a movement in the style of a funeral march and which partakes of the emotions of a funeral. For Beethoven himself, it surely conveys loss of his sense of life's bounty and of fate's benevolence.

For me, this is the single most moving of Beethoven's symphonies (excepting the Adagio of the Ninth). It tells the listener everything they need to know about the composer's despair and subsequent psychological renewal - finishing, as it does, with a set of variations that, in tone, presages the still grittier closing movements of the "Hammerklavier" sonata and the Quartet Op. 130.

Two recordings of the "Eroica" inhabit my CD rack - Karajan's BPO recording from the 1980s, and John Eliot Gardiner's with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Karajan's is pretty good, though by this time he wasn't as sharp as in his younger days. However, if there's the slightest hint of slackness in the BPO's playing, it does add a sense of immediacy that arguably is lacking from the recordings Karajan made in the 1970s.

As for Gardiner, his rendition is fast and thrilling, the bite of the fast movements compensating for an uncommonly hasty - though still, on its own terms, effective - slow movment. Plus, the speed means he can crowbar a recording of the 4th Symphony onto the same CD - can't say fairer than that.

[Return to top]

Frédéric Chopin


Piano Concerto in E Minor (Op. 11)

Few great composers are associated with a single instrument in the way that Chopin is with the piano. Because of this, the pieces he wrote for anything but solo piano tend to get dismissed as amateurish forays into unmastered territory; but I defy anyone to find evidence of this from his piano concertos - the only major orchestral pieces he wrote.

It's true that the orchestration of the concertos is less imaginative than many composers would have made it; but this in no way diminishes the effectiveness of the pieces as a whole. The important factor is the subtle interplay of soloist and orchestra, and Chopin has nothing to be embarrassed about here.

Both the piano concertos are powerful pieces of music; but Op. 11 (chronologically the second concerto, even though it is technically number 1) has an ultra-romantic ambience that really lifts the spirit to a higher plane of existence, man - yet without ever seeming breast-beating or overripe. The particular mix of muscular power from the orchestra and sensitive commentary by the piano is quite unique.

My recording of this concerto is by Pollini and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Paul Kletzki. Back in 1961 Pollini wasn't the automaton he could be in later years, and here he strikes a balance between poetry and control that he's reproduced, despite his technical perfection, less often than one might have hoped in subsequent recordings.

[Return to top]

Joseph Haydn


String Quartet in C (Op. 54 no. 2)

Once you've got used to the medium, you find that chamber music can equal orchestral music in excitement and drama - it's just that bit more subtle. Haydn runs a close second to Beethoven in bringing these qualities to the string quartet, like him employing surprise melodic shifts and unexpected dead stops in ways that keep the listener's ear constantly on its toes (to mix bodily metaphors rather unpleasantly).

The first movement is a high-speed roller-coaster ride that bolts between motifs and keys with spectacular unpredictability and agility. It's possibly the most ingenious single movement Haydn ever wrote. Beethoven couldn't have written it; nor could Mozart, and that's why Haydn should rightly be considered, in his quirky way, every bit as much a master as they were.

Following this a slightly arch adagio slows things down for a while, before they get going again in a minuet with strong recollections of the opening movement. Finally there's a typically Haydnesque surprise: not the buouyant rondo you might expect, but a second slow movement - this one, in contrast to the first, long, stately and moving. Towards the end of this there come some more high-speed antics, but not for long, and the slow melody has the final say.

No classical music communicates simple joy like Haydn's. Its lightness is, paradoxically, its most characteristically moving quality.

I only have the Lindays' recording of this quartet, and their intensity makes it a thrilling listen I can tell you. It's recorded with a very echoey acoustic, which makes for a "live" sound that highlights the music's sense of spontaneity. I'd be interested to hear what the more elegant Mosaïques Quartet make of it, should they ever commit it to plastic.

[Return to top]

String Quartet in F (Op. 77 no. 2)

Haydn's last completed string quartet is an underappreciated classic. As with the late music of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, depths are explored here that are only hinted at in the earlier work, for all the latter's ingenious and uplifting qualities.

The quartet's focii are the gentle, restrained opening Andante moderato and the strange, introspective slow movement. The latter is one of my favourite movements in all music, even if it is surpassed by uncountable others (including Haydn's own) in terms of formal ingenuity. It simply doesn't sound like anything else you'll hear, with its subtle, wistful harmonies and the sense of stillness created by its repetition of a simple but charming theme through a set of (not actually very varied) variations. Haydn's capacity to surprise strikes again.

I've two recordings of this quartet, which complement each other superbly. The first is by the Austrian Mosaïques Quartet, whose celestial purity of tone (they play on period instruments) may on paper sound like an unhappy marriage with Haydn's direct, unfussy writing. Yet in practice it highlights an aspect of this composer that is all too often forgotten - that he can be very moving.

The other recording is by the Lindsay Quartet. Intensity is this group's watchword: an all-male outfit, they have a distinctively "masculine" character, though this shouldn't be seen as implying that they lack sensitivity. But they keep the tempos brisk and the dynamic contrasts strong, and present a meatier take on the piece than the Mosaïques. Do yourself a favour, I say, and buy 'em both.

[Return to top]

Gustav Mahler


Symphony in C Minor (No. 2)

This is one of Mahler's most accessible symphonies, offering something to fans of both bombastic intensity and subtle lyricism. Me, I like both. It's popularly known as the "Resurrection Symphony", owing to the text that Mahler chose to set in the final movement, Klopstock's poem "Die Auferstehung" ("The Resurrection").

The bombast finds its place in the first and last movements. The former is a slow but noisy evocation of menace and impending judgment: subtle it isn't, but it certainly holds the listener's attention. The critic Bernard Haggin complained that the movement merely repeated an "unfilfilled promise" of something important to come that is never expressed. To some extent, I see his point: unlike in, say, the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica", there are no clearly defined development and resolution, but rather multiple repetitions of the original grim threats, punctuated by tranquil intermissions. From this perspective, one could argue that Mahler throws too much power into the opening bars and doesn't really have anywhere to go from there: the arc of the symphonic argument is such that the question posed in the first movement cannot be resolved without making subsequent movements redundant. Thus, it isn't in fact resolved until the final movement, which means that the listener ends the experience of the first with a sense of something left hanging. I dispute that this diminishes the movement's effectiveness: in fact, the unresolved tension renders all the more moving and unexpected the dainty andante moderato that follows it.

The third movement is a long scherzo in which hints of melancholy and menace are understatedly woven into a general mood of serenity and happiness. There are also occasional melodic foreshadowings of the dramatic utterances of the final movement.

Both the second and third movements exemplify Mahler's unique skill in incorporating homely folk-like melodies into gigantic, lush orchestral structures. There is the remarkable sense in these movements of vast swathes of human emotion, from mundane cheerfulness to apprehension of the transcendent, being compressed into relatively small aural spaces.

The fourth movement is a song titled "Urlicht" ("primordial light"). It's a meditative, uneasy reflection on the longing for release from worldly suffering. Despite its brevity, it is the crux of the symphony, the point at which the nexus between the earthly and the divine is finally perceived.

So, then, to the final movement: this, at last, takes up the question implied by the first movement. It starts off with loud orchestral echoes of the mood of the first movement that express the sentiment, "You'd forgotten this uncomfortable question, but it must be faced". Mixed in with the sense of menace familiar from the opening of the symphony are foreshadowings of resolution, of a state of grace. Halfway through the movement comes the anticipated transition: against a suddenly quiet backdrop, otherworldly trumpets sound, giving way to the extraordinarily quiet choral utterance, "Auferstehn, ja auferstehn / Wirst Du, mein Staub / Nach kurzer Ruh'!" ("Rise again, yes, my dust, you shall rise again, after brief repose"). The chorus then gathers force and volume, by a series of steps, the orchestra providing increasingly bombastic support as the sense of approaching heavenly joy grows stronger. In the final bars, Mahler summons all the resources of the orchestra in the build-up to a gigantic chord that seeks to express the joy beyond all joys. It's a tall order, and while it is thrilling to hear for the first time, on subsquent listens the effect falls a little flat: there's not enough interest in the detail to distract us from what is so obviously coming. It depends partly on mood though: there are still occasions when it makes my hair stand on end.

I have two recordings of this symphony, by Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia, and Claudio Abbado with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On balance I prefer the latter, as it brings out more of the orchestral detail and is a little less ponderous in the opening movement. Abbado, as usual, opts for fairly pronounced changes in tempo; but his highly expressive touch is always applied with sensitivity, and I never find it self-indulgent.

[Return to top]

Symphony in D Minor (No. 3)

It took a Proms concert a few years ago to lift this among my favourite Mahler symphonies. Until that occasion forced me to sit through the whole first three movements, I didn't have the patience to try to follow them; plus, the thrilling live sound helped sustain attention. Now I revel in the outrageous length of the whole thing - Mahler's idea that the symphony should be a world in which the listener gets lost is truly realised here.

The first two movements are meandering and often quite noisy; in fact it's not until the third movement that the symphony really gets going for me. This has something of the character of the scherzo of the Second Symphony, presenting alternations of tranquillity and apprehension before a haunting horn solo that recurs, modified, several times - the last time leading suddenly into the movement's stupendous finale, a dramatic crescendo of rapidly mounting excitement that comes to a sudden, skidding stop.

Following that is an anguished vocal solo, based on a poem by Nietzsche, that is initially haunting but that I think lasts too long, lacking as it does any real development of mood. Then there's an ingeniously melodious children's chorus; and finally, a 35-minute monster of a slow movement for which the word "oceanic" seems even more apt than usual with Mahler, the final destination into which the previous movements flow. Mahler made bold experiments in symphonic logic; I'm not aware that any composer before him had dared end with a slow movement. But in this case there is an appropriate sense of resolution and finality: not, as traditionally, a restatement of sentiments expressed earlier on, but the feeling of a long, long journey having been completed, its culmination psychologically very distant from its inception.

My recording of this is by Haitink and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Not all Haitink's Mahler recordings are successful, but on this occasion he manages to overcome his Northern European pflegm to fully enter into Mahler's emotionally overloaded fin-de-siècle Austro-Jewish world.

[Return to top]

Symphony in G (No. 4)

Probably Mahler's least characteristic symphony. Not that any of its movements could possibly have been composed by anyone other than the master of fin-de-siecle opulence; but after hearing it, you may well wonder, "Where was the bombast? Where was the doom?" Because for the most part, this symphony is a testament to serenity.

Only one movement brings clouds into the picture. But rest assured, these clouds mean business - they are deep blue booming cumulo-nimbus, and they are the size of small countries. They appear in the third movement - deceptively starting with the description "Ruhevoll" (peaceful). Allegedly this was Mahler's favourite of all his slow movements, and justifiably, I think: nowhere is his yearning for transcendence more powerfully expressed - not even in the Adagietto of the Fifth symphony. Those descending-semitone crescendoes floor me, every time. Like so much of the most poignant music, this movement strikes an astonishing balance between sadness and rapture, and is a definite condender for my favourite movement in all classical music.

OK, that's enough of that. The fact is that the other movements, though less immediately arresting, have their own power and eloquence that only become apparent after a few listens. All of them are essentially serene, and yet fascinating in their slow, purposeful working out of themes, and their subtle drifts of mood. The more one listens to this music, the more awe-struck one is by Mahler's ability to sustain musical logic over such huge timescales and aural canvasses; every detail is perfectly placed for optimum dramatic effect.

For many years I relied solely on the recording by Karajan and the Berlin Phil of this symphony. Taut, majestic and intense, it's a very "Teutonic" recording, as usual with Karajan. The slow movement, in particular, is especially powerful for its sense of restraint, its sense of emotion "painted" in all its subtlety, rather than simply expressed.

Recently I got hold of Claudio Abbado's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and it is a fine complement to the Karajan recording. The contrasts in tempo are greater, resulting in a slightly more extravagant, "Italian" take on the work. But there is no lack of subtlety or sensitivity: it's recognisably the same rich, delicious cake as Karajan's, just with somewhat different ratios of ingredients. Perhaps Abbado's slow movement doesn't have quite the austere grandeur of the taciturn Austrian's. On the other hand, the general quality of Abbado's recording is superior: many instrumental lines that are virtually inaudible in Karajan are brought out with wonderful clarity by Abbado, and that for me shone new light on some passages. Also, the vocal final movement is most beautifully sung by Frederica von Stade, even if her German pronunciation is a little off.

[Return to top]

Symphony in A Minor (No. 6)

Although I would be hard pressed to describe any Mahler symphony as my favourite, since they all have their unique points of interest, No. 6 is one that holds my attention more consistently than certain of the others (for example, most of No. 5 I find a massive yawn, excluding the famous Adagietto). Check out the grumpy martial beat of the first movement, the menace of the scherzo and the fab oceanic yearning of the Andante moderato. This is a symphony in which Mahler's profligacy makes perfect sense - how could something so BIG be any less long?

I've two recordings of this symphony. Georg Solti (conducting the Chicago SO) is fine in the faster movements, but fails to get to the heart of the slow movement. Not so Karajan, who teases out of the Berlin Philharmonic a performance of characteristic restrained intensity. This one does the trick for me, although it is annoying having the change CDs for the final movement :(

[Return to top]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


String Quartet in D Minor (K. 421)

Of all Mozart's music, it's the string quartets and quintets that I keep coming back to. The inherent intimacy of the medium seems to add a depth to the intricacy of Mozart's writing; and in fact any of Mozart's six 'Haydn' quartets, or the four string quintets he wrote in his maturity, would merit inclusion in this list of my favourite classical pieces.

I've chosen K. 421 here because its slow movement and minuet are among my favourites of Mozart's movements - both quite simple, but subtly poignant in a way no other composer could imitate. There's very little to say over and above that; if you know anything about Mozart's music, you'll know why this quartet is so good.

The Talich Quartet provide a smooth, lively account of this piece; as in all their recordings, the emphasis is on the intimacy of shared music-making, with less attention, perhaps, to deeper emotional resonances.

The Mosaïques Quartet's account is delicate and restrained. As in most of their recordings, they tend to slow speeds, and while they certainly never linger sentimentally over phrases, they occasionally miss a crucial element in Mozart: that a certain quickness in tempo forces a holding back of the music's sweet melancholy, making that melancholy all the more poignant.

Ultimately, I would plump for the Chilingirian Quartet's recording. They don't have the surface charm of the Talich, or the shimmering poise of the Mosaïques; but there is a depth to their music-making that only becomes fully apparent after several listens. There are no fireworks but you come away feeling that they have really got to the heart of the music. And their tempos are invariably well-judged. The only complaint is that the old analogue recording is a little blurry.

[Return to top]

Clarinet Quintet in A Major (K. 581)

It's odd that although this is one of the most sublime pieces of music, I can't think of much to say about it. As with all Mozart's great music, depths of feeling are rendered the more poignant for being carried by a deceptively immediate melodic charm, and brilliance of technique.

Almost all Mozart's late chamber music is splendid, but the Clarinet Quintet has more instant appeal than, say, the string quartets, because of the tonal contrast between the rawness of the strings and the smoothness of the clarinet. The latter instrument has a quality in Mozart's hands of something like birdsong; and there is no doubt which instrument has centre stage here. But the ear picks up on all kinds of interesting things going on in the background, adding the rhythmic and harmonic subtlety through which Mozart's music manages always not just to appeal aesthetically, but to get under the skin.

It's common in four-movement pieces for profundity to trail off after the first two movements, which sometimes exhaust the mood that the composer wanted to convey. (Consider two two-movement masterpieces: Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, which arguably wasn't unfinished at all, but finished in two movements; and Beethoven's final piano sonata, Op. 111, which, similarly, Beethoven at first regarded as "unfinished" but ended up publishing anyway, persuaded that it already said everything he had had in mind.) But the emotional logic of the Clarinet Quintet is sustained from start to finish, with every movement having its distinct mood and charm - and with every movement being chock full of good tunes into the mix.

I must have three or four recordings of this piece; I couldn't really choose between them and I suppose that's because I can't really tell one gifted clarinetist from another. The clarinet does not offer the same scope for individuality of tone that string instruments do. As good a choice as any is Thea King with the Gabrieli Quartet on Hyperion, because it's coupled with the Clarinet Concerto, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra. The Concerto is, by its nature, a more expansive and less intimate piece than the Quintet, but being in the same key, and sharing some motifs with it, it offers an interesting constrast.

[Return to top]

Franz Schubert


String Quartet in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden") (D. 810)

This is a rather belated addition to my list of favourite Schubert pieces. I overlooked it for years, having just one recording, by the Lindsay Quartet, that without my realising it failed to do the work justice. Why? It just lays on the anguish too thick. This is a frequent problem with virtuoso musicians when playing Schubert: they don't know what to make of his unornamented, spare scores. Schubert's music doesn't have the raw energy of Beethoven, or quite the intricacy of Mozart, where themes are passed between instruments at a startling rate, always giving performers plenty to chew on.

In short, Schubert's music lays bare musicians' ability to render deep emotion with restraint, and it's surprising how many fail the test. "Death and the Maiden" is actually one of Schubert's most intense chamber pieces, with its fast, menacing opening and closing movements: they tempt performers to go all out with the menace and hold nothing back. The Lindsays succumb to the temptation and go into "Beethoven" mode, which they stay in for the slow movement, squeezing every last drop of breast-beating Angst from it.

But then I heard the Mosaiques Quartet play the piece at Wigmore Hall in the early 2000s, and was blown away. I had loved the Mosaiques' recordings of Mozart's and Haydn's quartets for a long while, and was intrigued beforehand as to how they would address Schubert's more directly anguished work. Simply, they applied the same technique: playing with poise and focus, drip-feeding the emotion into the music rather than letting it all come gushing out. There was no lack of intensity, but it was perfectly controlled: in their hands the menace of the opening movement was the threat of the attack rather than - as with the Lindsays - the attack itself. Meanwhile, the slow movement, with its soft funeral march theme, gained from being played at a relatively level volume and pace, the beautiful sad tune and its variations left to speak for themselves.

Finally, a couple of years ago, the Mosaiques released a recording of "Death and the Maiden", and I was delighted that the disc reproduced, in essence, what I'd heard at the concert. There's not much more to say, really. The work, though not short, is one of Schubert's tautest: there is no redundant repetition or spinning-out of themes; and the moods of the movements dovetail perfectly, to make - as with the String Quintet - a whole that is even more than the sum of its brilliant parts.

[Return to top]

Symphony in C (No. 9) (D. 944)

I tend to agree with those who think this symphony is too long; or if not too long, perhaps long in not quite the right way.

The problem for me is with the two middle movements - both full of pretty themes and pleasant, trotting rhythms, but with what seems to me a lack of tautness about them. To take an example, the waltz theme of the trio may be one of the cutest tunes Schubert ever wrote, but so relentlessly is it hammered home that by the time the scherzo returns you feel you never want to hear it again in your life.

I wonder if the problem is also partly the lack of a slow movement. Think of the way that Beethoven's 3rd and 9th Symphonies depend for so much of their power on the gravitas of their adagios. The same goes for Mahler's 4th and 6th Symphonies - and indeed Schubert's own late piano sonatas and the String Quintet. Somehow the Symphony in C lacks, for me, an emotional fulcrum.

Still, all that said, this is one of my favourite symphonies, principally on account of the opening and closing movements - and being more specific still, on account of a particular recording of them, by Klaus Tennstedt and the Berlin Philharmonic. Tennstedt plays the piece fast and with strong dynamic contrasts, emphasising drama wherever possible, rather than rhythm. The result is a particularly rousing rendition: the first movement has a marvellous feeling of excitement and anticipation about it, which makes me picture an enormous 18th-Century sailing ship being prepared for an epic voyage (or something). The final movement recaptures the same spirit - both the thrill and the melancholy of departure for new places.

[Return to top]

String Quintet in C (D. 956)

If I recall correctly, this is the only piece of chamber music that made it into the "Desert Island Discs" all-time Top Ten. It's justifiably one of Schubert's most famous works - principally on account of its heart-rending adagio. But the depth of its other movements shouldn't be overlooked - particularly the massive opening one, whose total effect is so much more than the sum of its parts. There's also the long slow interlude in the allegretto, which contains some of the most vertiginous key shifts Schubert ever committed to paper.

The final movement is a light, but strangely menacing allegretto - as though the Devil were doing a victory dance on the grave of the being whose life he tormented in the movements before. It's quite a fitting end, even if it's not what you come to the piece for.

I've got the Lindsay Quartet's recording of this, with Douglas Cummings playing the second cello. The group's combination of intensity and depth gets right to the heart of the piece, and unlike in some of their Schubert recordings, they manage to avoid coming on too strong, too "Romantic". I can't help but feel that the Mosaiques Quartet are capable of producing the definitive recording of this work, but I don't know if it's on their agenda.

[Return to top]

Piano Sonata in A (D. 959)

My favourite Schubert sonata. If it doesn't have a single movement as poignant as the first of the better-known D. 960, nevertheless in my opinion it forms a more coherent whole. Like D. 960 it is pervaded by melancholy, but of a more equivocal kind that mixes resignation with rapture. The first movement is austere, reflective and full of ambiguity, as themes of questioning - even apprehension - alternate with passages of bold confidence.

The second movement (the most famous in the work) is one of the grimmest Schubert wrote, with its middle passage of crushing, chaotic chromatism. After this, the clouds clear for the scherzo; but the happiness it expresses is that which has known excruciating suffering - it is the happiness of gratitude. The finale is a cheerful, whistling rondo that carries many thematic echoes of the first movement; with its simple, placid main melody, at first it seems something of a disappointment after the preceding profundities. However, its real significance becomes clear in the middle section, where the rondo theme gives birth to a three-note motif that balances spectacularly between keys, creating a tone of strenuous yearning before finally giving out and letting the movement return to its placidity in the little time it has left.

The piece ends with a burst of powerful, affirmative chords that recall the opening theme of the first movement - bringing things full circle and suggesting (to me) an ultimate refusal to let suffering stifle love of life.

I have several recordings of this sonata. My favourite is Maurizio Pollini's, whose Schubert recordings have grown on me. At first I found them understated to the point of coldness, but I was perhaps too used to the distensions of tempo and dynamics applied by more "expressive" performers. What characterises Pollini's Schubert recordings is their fluidity, their sense of steady momentum. The composer's melodies and structures have an intrinsic crystalline beauty that is easily polluted by excessive "emoting": when meaning is so eloquently expressed by the simple flow of notes, it takes a virtuoso of unusual self-discipline to render it as, one feels, it was intended: Pollini, at his best, is one such.

Stephen Kovacevich's recording caused controversy on its release, and not without reason - taking considerable dynamic liberties, he manages to make this sonata sound like something by Beethoven. On first hearing, it is impressive; but the more familiar it becomes, the more vulgar it seems also. (On the other hand, Kovacevich's Beethoven recordings are among the best around.)

Other recordings I have are by Perahia and Brendel. Both are fine; Brendel paces his rendition quite slowly, which some may find offputting, but I think it works.

[Return to top]

(c) Copyright 2002-2016