Daniel Propper – Schubert’s Last Three Piano Sonatas

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Daniel Propper (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 8 June, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Daniel PropperThe three last symphonies of Mozart, composed within a six-week period in 1788 – the culmination of his symphonic composition, a trio of masterpieces each very different from the others, and of which he heard none in performance – are mirrored in the last three piano sonatas of Schubert, which constitute an equally astonishing example of the highest manifestation of compositional genius. In some respects, Schubert’s achievement is greater than that of Mozart’s, in that the three sonatas were written in less than six weeks, and are confined in terms of instrumental coloration to the piano keyboard. Thus, we are forced to concentrate solely upon the train of Schubert’s musical thought, untrammelled by instrumental interest, and how he was able to bring – in the closing weeks of his short life – his unique command of large-scale composition based entirely, in structural terms, to his personal approach to tonality, and key-relationships.

But these sonatas are much more than that; they exhibit that extraordinary range of emotional expression which, in the matter of its utterance, removes Schubert from the earliest part of the burgeoning Romantic age – such as his contemporary Weber inhabited – at the same time as conveying that ‘other-worldliness’ of the greatest music. Attempts to Romanticise Schubert’s music, especially his very late works of 1828, always fail, because the essential form on which they are based, what we might term the late-Classical period, is thereby fractured, weakening the very foundations on which the music is based.

The temptation is strong, and should be resisted, but Daniel Propper, in this extraordinarily challenging programme, sought to move Schubert’s last sonatas from the late-Biedermeier Austrian period and into what might be termed the early-Leipzig German period of half-a-dozen years later. Schubert, after all, did not know the early music of Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, Chopin or Mendelssohn – even though they were contemporaneous with him in the late 1820s – and it is wrong to attempt to relate Schubert to such exemplars of the Romantic age.

From the opening pages of the C minor Piano Sonata, the fractured nature of Propper’s approach was apparent; there was no structurally unifying underlying pulse in his reading, and although we welcomed his readiness to observe repeats in the C minor and A major works, his approach to tempo, and of tempo-relationships within the movements, detracted from playing that was, in essence, very musical and expressive. The A major Sonata was seriously damaged by a tempo for the second movement, marked Andantino, that could well have been considered Adagio assai, ruining Schubert’s essential content.

The B flat Piano Sonata fared better, apart from a dangerously slow initial tempo, for the final three movements were far more coherently played, this music resisting such a Romanticised approach as had bedevilled its bedfellows. Although one cannot praise Propper’s views of these Sonatas overall, it would be churlish not to admire his technical mastery and his undoubted musicianship – albeit too often misplaced, as it transpired, on this occasion.

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