This afternoon in the Noontime Concerts recital series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tien Hsieh returned to give a performance of Franz Schubert’s final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. For those who do not already know the story, this is not just the last sonata that Schubert composed, it was the third of three, all of which were written in September of 1828. D. 960 was completed on September 26. Death would claim Schubert on November 19; so it is easy to believe that September was the month of a last-ditch effort to make sure that his latest thoughts about the piano sonata would get documented.
D. 960 is definitely the most ambitious of the three. The architecture of the first movement is so vast that one can readily assume that it inspired the even larger scales that would be created by Gustav Mahler. The following movements are shorter, but there is still as sense that Schubert was aspiring to a massive design plan for the overall sonata. There is also a strong impression that his approach to polyphony was driven, at least in part, by how different registers expressed themselves through different sonorities. While the sonorities of the modern piano differ significantly from any of the instruments that Schubert might have played, it is still plausible that he would have been aware of that differentiation of sound qualities and sought to engage it in ways that made the expressive rhetoric of D. 960 decidedly unique for its time.
If Hsieh’s performance was not always note-perfect, she clearly had a strong command of the reasoning that Schubert brought to this sonata. Much of the architecture of that prolonged opening movement gives the impression of evoking a sense of uncertainty. Phrases in the middle register are declaimed with an almost naïve simplicity, but they are interrupted by ominous rumblings in the bottom register. Where Ludwig van Beethoven would charge forth with heroic certainty, D. 960 presents a protagonist concerned that a demon might be hiding behind every tree, not that different from many of the characters established in the poems that Schubert set to song. Hsieh was consistently on the money when it came to making sure that every register established its own voice with its own sonority and readily explored the hypothesis that these sonorities were also playing roles in some arcane drama beyond the capacity of human ken. Thus, any flaws in execution receded into a background whose foreground involved a firm command of the dramatic potential of every one of Schubert’s phrases.
Hsieh set the tone for her journey with an intriguingly appropriate “overture.” This was the fifteenth prelude (in D-flat major) of Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 11 set of 24 preludes in all major and minor keys. The brevity of this prelude anticipates the same sort of brevity that one later encounters in the music of Anton Webern. The prelude is all of 28 measures; and, while there is no doubt that the key is D-flat major, the harmonic progression establishes several key moments of hesitation that anticipate that same rhetoric of uncertainty that plays such a significant role in D. 960. Hsieh clearly put a lot of thought into how Schubert’s behemoth of a sonata should be introduced to her audience, and the result was one of the most satisfying piano recitals of the season.