Arts & Events

Richard Goode Plays Schubert’s Last Piano Sonatas

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday October 31, 2014 - 10:30:00 AM

Franz Schubert idolized Beethoven. And in some ways Beethoven and Schubert are alike. Yet also how different they are. Beethoven is all of a piece. Whether composing symphonies, string quartets, piano works, or even an opera, Beethoven is always recognizably Beethoven and no other. Schubert, on the contrary, is chameleon-like. There is the Schubert of the early symphonies and the very different, far greater Schubert of the last two symphonies. There is the Schubert of the lieder. Yet how different are his lieder cycles from one another. Take, for example, Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise. Then there is the Schubert who himself differentiated between the demanding works he wrote for himself and his circle of friends, such as the C-major String Quintet and D-minor String Quartet, and those he wrote for popular “success,” such as the Trout Quintet, which latter, however, needs no apologies for its picturesque, bubbling lyricism.  

Among Schubert’s piano sonatas, his last three, all published posthumously, have a special standing. Their fame came late, well into the 20th century, due in large part to pianist Arthur Schnabel’s championing of them during the 1928 centennial of Schubert’s death. Schnabel himself was probably the finest inter-preter of Schubert’s piano sonatas. Richard Goode, who has recorded the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and piano concertos, has lately taken on the challenge of playing Schubert’s last three sonatas together in concert. Says Goode, “Taking on this challenge of playing these last three sonatas together is something very personally important for me. I’ve played all three of them separately many times, but I’ve always wondered whether I would have the emotional concentration required to play them together at one time – the extreme emotional range.” 

The emotional range of Schubert’s last three sonatas can indeed be daunting. The C-minor Sonata, D. 958, opens with an Allegro movement that features the torrential drive and leonine strength of Beethoven. The A-major Sonata, D. 959, is as bleak and tragic as the final song of Die Winterreise. And, finally, the B-flat major Sonata, D. 960, has a heroic, Apollonian overview of all life’s emotions as if viewed from somewhere beyond this earth. In tackling these majestic works in his Sunday, October 25th recital at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, under the auspices of Cal Per-formances, pianist Richard Goode succeeded in consummate fashion in com-municating the vast expanse of Schubertian emotions compressed into these last three sonatas.  

Goode took these posthumous sonatas in order. He opened the recital with the C-minor sonata, which itself poses a challenge in offering a first movement far more expansive and demanding than the opening movements of the other two sonatas. Worthy of Beethoven in its breadth and depth, the C-minor sonata’s opening movement begins with brusque chords in the lower register, then intro-duces an agitated melody, which, itself, is punctuated by more bass chords before being developed expansively. When a second theme is introduced, the drama is heightened with exciting modulations. This entire Allegro movement, as played by Richard Goode, was an emphatic show of force. The second movement, an Adagio, begins with a slow, poignant theme that becomes probing as it is treated to changing dynamics. The third movement, a Menuetto: Allegro, opens with a lively theme which subsequently is interrupted by numerous momentary pauses before it starts up anew, often with sudden dynamic contrasts. The final Allegro movement features numerous pregnant pauses, long runs, and occasional cross-handed playing before closing with a resounding climax. 

Second on the program was Schubert’s A-major sonata, the most tragic of the three. Its opening movement, marked Allegro, begins with a heroic gesture immed-iately balanced by light, airy falling arpeggios. (The program notes observe that “the opposed states of vigor and languor are juxtaposed throughout much of the move-ment.”) The real meat of this sonata, however, comes in the second movement, marked Andantino, which opens with a sad, bleak melody that, once developed, becomes ominously portentous before returning to an almost moribund re-statement. The third movement, a Scherzo, offers gentle relief; and the final movement, a Rondo, features lovely melodies reminiscent of those heard in Schubert’s string quartets and quintets, here developed with cumulative power. 

After intermission, Richard Goode returned to play Schubert’s last sonata, the B-flat major sonata, D. 960. This work is generally considered the greatest of Schubert’s piano sonatas; and in Richard Goode’s hands it certainly lived up to its august reputation. The opening movement, marked Molto moderato, features a gently flowing melody punctuated here and there by growling low notes. Although one would hardly call Goode’s pianistic style mannered, occasionally in this move-ment Goode’s raised left hand seemed to gently shape the melody in mid-air while his right hand continued to develop the beautiful and majestic melody on the keyboard. Beneath the simplicity of this melody, however, are subtle touches: irregular phrase-lengths, mysterious trills in the base, and a drift into a remote key followed by a triumphant return to the home key a bit later. New ideas then emerge in the exposition and receive extended development before the main theme returns and the movement closes in the pensive mood in which it began. 

The second movement, an Andante sostenuto, is itself a lyric masterpiece. Alfred Einstein called it “the climax and apotheosis of Schubert’s instrumental lyricism and his simplicity of form.” Particularly impressive was Goode’s delicate playing of the frequent left-to-right cross-handed notes that, individually, complete one wistfully nostalgic phrase after another, until, after a richly colored and robust central section, the main theme returns, again in multiple modulations, each ending poignantly in a single cross-handed note, which latterly becomes two notes, and, finally, four notes. The succeeding Scherzo is lively, playful and brief; and the final movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, offers changing dynamics and a driving rhythmic energy that leads to a robust conclusion, which offers an Apollonian affirmation of everything that has come before, no matter how dark and desolate or poignantly nostalgic. 

All in all, it must be said that Richard Goode more than rose to the challenge of expressing Schubert’s vast emotional panorama in these last sonatas. If Arthur Schnabel was the first great champion of these works, it might well be said that Richard Goode is a candidate to establish himself among Schnabel’s heirs as a great interpreter of Schubert’s last three sonatas for piano.