Dying a thousand little deaths

 Schubert's Impromptus are deliciously painful. © Charles Thibo
Schubert’s Impromptus are deliciously painful. © Charles Thibo

Blogger’s warning: If you are prone to depression, please leave this page now. And please do not click on that link below and do not listen to the music I am about to present. This music is heart-breaking. It is deliciously painful. It marries lust and distress in an exquisite way by one of the masters of the Romantic era: Franz Schubert. And as so often with Schubert, every note of this piece is like dying a little death.

An unfinished sonata?

In December 1827, a year before his death, Schubert wrote the Four Impromptus D. 935, but he did not publish them during his lifetime. They became known to the general public only in 1839 as Op. post 142. Robert Schumann was one of the first to mention the idea that the first, second and fourth piece belong together and are actually the first, second and fourth movement of an unfinished sonata.

When I speak of dying a thousand little death, I am referring mainly to Impromptus nos. 1 and 2. The first one in F minor, marked by a dark harmony, is full of passionate longing. The second one in A flat minor is a little brighter: Melancholy is gleaming through the score everywhere, but it is being mitigated by a soft, gentle theme that I would like to compare to a warm summer rain.

Number 3 in B flat major is a slowly rocking melody, almost like a lullaby, with a few more forceful elements while number 4, again in F minor, is a lively lovely piece with funnily dancing quavers that reminded Schumann of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio in G, Op. 129 “Die Wut über den verlornen Groschen”.

Male or female pianist?

All of the Impromptus are worth listening several times, but please keep my initial warning in mind. An overdose of Schubert may be detrimental to your mental health. This said, I can recommend two recordings, one by Viviana Sofronitsky and one by Alfred Brendel and even after repeated listening, I am wondering whether it makes a difference if the Impromptus are performed by a female or a male pianist. If man and woman interpret a piece mentally in two different ways, how different will their performance look like? I am tempted to say that Viviana Sofronitsky plays it with a little more warmth and passion. I am looking forward to read any comments on that.

I have gone through the biography of Schubert in earlier posts, i.e. the one on his String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden” and the one on the Piano Sonata No. 6 in E major, so I will no repeat myself. What strikes me with Schubert – and with Tchaikovsky – is this strange paradox: All that gloominess, all this desperation would have driven any other man insane. Schubert and Tchaikovsky seem to have strived on exactly these moods as they composed their most brilliant pieces at moments of utter despair. Isn’t it sublime, how creativity is born out of man’s misery?

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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