“In a word I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse instead of better …but I have tried my hand at several instrumental things … in fact, I intend to pave the way towards a grand symphony in this manner.”
These extracts from a letter of 1824 epitomise to me the paradox of Schubert, the manic depressive composer. On the one hand his music has that world-weary element of profound grief – ‘the most wretched creature in the world’ – and on the other a life-affirming exuberance bordering on the manic that characterises the Wanderer-Fantasie and parts of the D major sonata D.850.
While Schubert’s later piano music has a range of emotions that rivals Beethoven’s last sonatas, in the beginning of his career he perhaps lacked the assurance of the older composer, and he was less fastidious about destroying sketches and fragments. As a result there are a large number of unfinished works and, therefore, the pianist has to make a decision about where to start the Schubert odyssey. Schubert himself made no effort to try and publish any of his sonatas before the great A minor D.845 of 1825. I decided to start slightly earlier with the B major of 1817 where one senses an assurance and boldness of tonal experiment not found before in his piano music.
Perhaps the three earliest sonatas (on Disc 6) manifest the journey into Schubert’s maturity: two pieces of a generally sunny disposition followed by the A minor D.784, written shortly after he discovered he was suffering from syphilis and one of the most desolate of all his works. My Schubert recitals at Cardiff also featured several of his Lieder as transcribed by Liszt which we have put together on CD 7. The transcription, especially that of ‘great’ music such as Schubert’s remains one of the few genres that is still frowned upon by serious musicians even in the twenty-first century. I would urge these people to consider Schubert’s own variations for flute and piano on ‘Trockne Blumen’, one of the most profound songs in Die schöne Müllerin, and which he turns into one of the most outlandishly virtuosic things ever. Liszt’s versions are often admirably restrained by comparison. The songs I have chosen tend to be either those where Liszt employs
the full resources of his pianistic prowess to enhance the narrative – Erlkönig, Die Forelle – or those where he manages to turn the piano from percussive machine into the most glamorous of singing instruments – Litanei, Ave Maria.