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Franz Schubert - Sonata in D major, D. 850

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In August 1825, Schubert set off on a journey to Salzburg and Gastein, through the mountain region of the Salzkammergut. In a letter to his brother Ferdinand, he described the splendour of the scenery: 'Towers and palaces appear one by one; at last one passes the Kapuziner mountain, whose huge rocky wall rises sheer hard by the road, and looks fearsomely down at the traveller. The Untersberg and its companions take on the appearance of a giant, their size threatening to crush us.'

It was during this time that Schubert worked on two large-scale compositions, the 'Great' C major Symphony and the Piano Sonata in D major, D. 850, that seem to reflect the grandeur of the landscape he saw. The unusually extrovert style of the sonata, the second of his three works of the kind to appear in print during his lifetime, was perhaps prompted by the fact that it was dedicated to a virtuoso pianist, Karl Maria von Bocklet. He was a member of Schubert's intimate circle, and although only four years his junior, he survived the composer by more than half a century.

Kapuzinerberg Salzburg

Of all Schubert's piano sonatas this is the most extrovert, and its opening movement is unusually quick for a composer whose tempo indications characteristically include the qualification moderato. The D major sonata begins with what for Schubert is an unusually urgent and impetuous movement. The rhythm of its main theme dominates the entire piece, each idea growing with unerring logic out of the last. Even the curious 'yodelling' theme that suddenly appears in a slower tempo is anticipated in the bars that precede it. At the start of the central development the opening theme's repeated chords are transmuted into a resounding horn call, an idea that is to return in the movement's even swifter coda.

The slow movement contrasts a songlike theme with a more flowing, syncopated episode. The episode concludes with a series of syncopated chords, disintegrating into a sigh of infinite poignancy. The reprise of the main theme itself is given to the pianist's left hand, while the right adds a quasi violin obbligato, complete with an imitation of portamento, or expressive glissando. The theme's final return, following the second episode, fuses the movement's two main ideas, with the syncopated rhythm now incorporated into the accompaniment. Syncopation is also the mainstay of the Scherzo, whose emphatic theme appears to alternate between three and two beats to the bar. Eventually the theme gives way to a haunting Landler, using the same playful rhythm. The l.andler is to make a reappearance following the Trio, in a coda whose calm provides a natural transition to the gentle rondo finale.

The choice of so intimate a finale to round off this imperious work is perhaps surprising, though the understatement and innocence of the rondo theme itself are offset by the more assertive nature of two contrasting episodes. Nevertheless, it is characteristic that Schubert should allow the sonata to fade away into the distance, with a coda in a slower tempo. The sonata is also known as the 'Gasteiner sonata'

Listen to the 2nd movement

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