Pianist Inon Barnatan Records New Solo Album, Out 9/10
Called "a born Schubertian" by Gramophone magazine, pianist Inon Barnatan has recorded his second solo album for the AVIE label to be released on September 10, 2013. Featuring works written during the last year of Schubert's life the album includes his sonatas, D 958 and D 959, and his Impromptu No. 3. Mr. Barnatan wrote the liner notes for the album (provided in full below) as he did for his debut album for AVIE, Darknesse Visible (2012), which debuted in the Top 25 of the Billboard Traditional Classical chart and was named one of The New York Times' Best Classical Music Recordings of 2012.
Mr. Barnatan says in his album notes, "And I think it was then, hearing different musicians name their 'top ten' lists, that it first struck me how many lists contained not only works by Schubert, but pieces he composed in the last year of his life...In that short year Schubert produced not only some of his most enduring works, but some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music."
The two sonatas in this album, Mr. Barnatan says, display Schubert's honest and genuine voice as he transcends the shadow of Beethoven and faces his own impending death. Both pieces are opposite in character but carry the same unsettling undertones. In the last year of his life, Mr. Barnatan says, Schubert was "at the height of his compositional powers," but "only too aware of an alarming deterioration in his physical and mental health."
Mr. Barnatan is widely recognized for refined, communicative, insightful playing that combines an extraordinary depth of musicianship and an impeccable, virtuosic technique. Hailed by The New Yorker as "a pianist of uncommon sensitivity," Mr. Barnatan is often praised for his naturally expressive, poetic music making throughout a diverse range of imaginative programs with repertoire from the classical to the contemporary. Following this album release, Mr. Barnatan will give a recital at London's Wigmore Hall on September 18 that includes Schubert's Piano Sonata in A Major D 959 along with a new piece by Matthias Pintscher commissioned for Mr. Barnatan by The Aspen Music Festival, Concertgebouw, and Wigmore Hall. Mr. Barnatan's 2013-14 engagements in the United States include concerto performances with the Bangor Symphony, Boulder Philharmonic, Fresno Philharmonic, and Oregon Symphony and recitals for the Frederic Chopin Society in St. Paul, Houston da Camera, and for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Franz Schubert (1791-1828)
Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A major, D959
Impromptus (4) for Piano, D899/Op. 90: no. 3 in G flat major-Andante
Schubert's Late Sonatas: Past, Present and Future
When I was a student my fellow musicians and I would often, and excitedly, name our favourite pieces to one another. The question of favourites now pops up regularly and is posed to me by countless concert-goers and journalists, and I try and stay as well away from a direct answer as a parent asked to name his favourite child. But as students my friends and I were less mindful. And I think it was then, hearing different musicians name their 'top ten' lists, that it first struck me how many lists contained not only works by Schubert, but pieces he composed in the last year of his life. Most string players would name the String Quintet in their top five list, many singers would name Schwanengesang, and pianists (or at least the less virtuosically minded ones) would often choose one of the late sonatas or four-hand works. In that short year Schubert produced not only some of his most enduring works, but some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music.
What is it about Schubert's last year that makes it so remarkable, so special? What makes these pieces so beautiful to us? There are many possible answers to this question, but I think one of them has to do with the music's personal nature. It seems to come so directly from Schubert's soul that it touches ours more insistently. It is often a dangerous endeavour to ascribe biographical or historical meaning to music which is, essentially, not programmatic. Composers wrote some of their sunniest pieces in their darkest hours, and vice versa. Even so, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, between the death of Beethoven in late 1827 and Schubert's own death in 1828, Schubert's music seems more intense, its emotional reach extended. The piano sonatas were composed within a short few months in 1828, and it seems Schubert intended for them to be published together. The last three piano sonatas, in particular, suggest a journey through Schubert's life, a personal musical diary of both immense scope and intimate detail. The three sonatas are, in some ways, the three main chapters of his autobiography: past, present and future. For my first solo album I chose to record the last of these sonatas, the B flat sonata D960. It was like starting at the end. The piece's sense of sublime resignation makes us feel as if Schubert is looking beyond the present, into the future.
This recording starts with the past, or the Sonata in C Minor D958, in which we feel the great weight and legacy of one of Schubert's most revered musical idols. He made no secret of his admiration for Beethoven, and served as pallbearer at the master's funeral, famously exclaiming, 'Who can do anything after Beethoven?!' It is almost impossible to hear this C minor sonata without thinking of Beethoven. The first movement not only mirrors a theme from Beethoven's 32 variations (in the same key, and with an almost identical chord progression), it also echoes Beethoven's spirit, shaking his fist at the heavens. Echoes of Beethoven, perhaps, but the music is unmistakably Schubert. It is a testament to Schubert that he is ultimately invigorated rather than debilitated by Beethoven's shadow. As Alfred Brendel has written: 'He evokes the memory of Beethoven and the classical style, but is no docile follower. On the contrary, his familiarity with Beethoven's works taught him to be different... Schubert relates to Beethoven, he reacts to him, but he follows him hardly at all. Similarities of motif, texture or formal pattern never obscure Schubert's own voice. Models are concealed, transformed, surpassed.'
And so the sonata comes to represent not only Schubert's past, but also how he transcends it. As if to establish that fact from the outset, the opening doesn't stop and resolve, like Beethoven's statement in the variations, but reaches higher and higher and into a climax that only serves to unsettle it, turning assertion into uncertainty and providing the thematic and dramatic structure for the entire movement.
The beautiful theme of the remarkable second movement is almost chorale-like, once again reminding us of Beethoven (the 'Pathétique' Sonata) though it sings in a more human, personal way. It moves, unhurried, between familiar and strange harmonies, returning in three different guises during the course of the movement, at once searching and reassuring. The highly emotional intervening episodes make the return to the theme even more cathartic and miraculous.
The short Menuetto moves disconcertingly between an Erlkönig-like insistence, and a cheeky waltz. The last movement, a virtuosic and frantic tarantella, is relentless, terrifying, exciting and uplifting all at once.
The majestic Sonata in A Major D959 is a very different animal. For the most part it is an open-hearted, lyrical piece. Not as stormy as the C minor, or as transcendent and ethereal as the B flat sonata, it occupies a kind of 'middle period' where Schubert seems his most confident. The sonata is a masterpiece in both large-scale and small-scale writing. Schubert moves effortlessly between grand orchestral gestures and intimate song-like phrases.
It is also one of the most beautifully constructed of his large pieces, with episodes returning like leitmotifs. The grand opening theme of the first movement is transformed to bring a soft and mysterious conclusion, comically pops up in the middle of the Scherzo, and returns once more to end the sonata in grand fashion. The tragic-sounding rolled chords from the Andante turn into the jaunty theme of the scherzo.
Perhaps the most striking passage of the A major Sonata has nothing to do with melody or construction. It is the moment in the middle of the Andante where the music falls apart and descends into madness. The movement starts with a sorrowful song, and a lilting rhythmic figuration supporting it from below like the strokes of an oar. Suddenly the music stops and Schubert begins to roam, seemingly aimlessly, through different keys, as if lost. The music becomes increasingly agitated, leading to blustering scales and chords, their intensity and insistence suggesting mounting desperation. Brief attempts at calm are only answered with outbursts of rage, until finally, and gradually, the wildness is tamed, like Orpheus taming the demons of hell, and the sorrowful song returns.
This remarkable episode is so unlike anything else Schubert ever wrote that it seems, for a brief moment, that he allows us a glimpse into his unfiltered inner world. It is so shocking in its revelation that it informs how I hear the rest of the piece: always aware of something raw and honest underneath. In this respect the A major sonata encapsulates Schubert's present. Even as he worked at the height of his compositional powers, Schubert was nevertheless only a few weeks away from his own death and was only too aware of an alarming deterioration in his physical and mental health. His letters to his friends suggested mounting desperation.
Taking this journey through Schubert's musical diary as embodied in his last three sonatas has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life, and it is a great feeling to be able to share it with you.