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Last but not least: Pianist Sir András Schiff on Last Sonatas Project

Editor’s note: Pianist Sir András Schiff performs three concerts of the “The Last Sonatas” by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert February 16-20, 2016. Below is his reflection on the project.

andras schiff

Photo: Sir András Schiff. Courtesy of the artist.

“Alle guten Dinge sind drei” — all good things are three, according to this German proverb that must have been well-known to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Introducing their last three piano sonatas in three concerts — twelve works, twelve being a multiple of three — is a fascinating project that can demonstrate the connections, similarities and differences among these composers.

The sonata form

The sonata form is one of the greatest inventions in Western music, and it is inexhaustible. With our four masters of Viennese classicism it reached an unprecedented height that has never been equaled, let alone surpassed. Mozart and Beethoven were virtuoso pianists while Haydn and Schubert were not, although they both played splendidly (Schubert’s playing of his own Lieder had transported his listeners to higher spheres and brought tears to their eyes). The piano sonatas are central in their œuvres and through them we can study and observe the various stages of their development.

Lateness is relative, of course; Haydn (1733-1809) and Beethoven (1770-1827) lived long. Mozart (1756-1791) and Schubert (1797-1828) died tragically young. It’s the intensity of their lives that matters. In the final year of his life Schubert wrote the last three piano sonatas, the C Major string quintet, the song-cycle “Schwanengesang” and many other works. What more could we ask for? These last sonatas of our four composers are all works of maturity. Some of them – especially those of Haydn – are brilliant performance pieces; others (Beethoven, Schubert) are of a more intimate nature – it isalmost as if the listener were eavesdropping on a personal confession.

Lateness is relative

Both Beethoven and Schubert had worked on their final three sonatas simultaneously; they were meant to be triptychs. Similarly, Haydn’s three “London sonatas” — the only works in this series that weren’t written in Vienna — were inspired by the new sonorities and wider keyboard of the English fortepianos and belong definitely together. It would be in vain to look for a similar pattern in Mozart’s sonatas. For that let’s consider his last three symphonies — but his late music is astonishing for itsmasterful handling of counterpoint, its sense of form and proportion, its exquisite simplicity.

Let me end with a few personal thoughts. The last three Beethoven sonatas make a wonderful programme. They can beplayed together, preferably without a break. Some pianists like to perform the last three Schubert sonatas together. This, at least for me, is not a good idea. These works are enormous constructions, twice as long as those of Beethoven, and the emotional impact they create is overwhelming, almostunbearable. It is mainly for this reason that I am combining Beethoven and Schubert with Haydn and Mozart. They complement each other beautifully, in a perfect exchange of tension and release. Haydn’s originality and boldness never fail to astonish us. Who else would have dared to place an E Major movement into the middle of an E-flat Major sonata? His wonderful sense of humour and Mozart’s graceful elegance may lighten the tensions created by Beethoven’s transcendental metaphysics and Schubert’s spellbinding visions.

Great music is always greater than its performance, as Arthur Schnabel wisely said. It is never easy to listen to, but it’s well worth the effort.

Pianist Sir András Schiff performs three concerts of the “The Last Sonatas” by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert February 16-20, 2016. 

Are there artists whose “late” creativity you admire? Discuss in the comments below.

Tracing the String Quartet

Photo: Takács Quartet performs. Photo courtesy of Frank Stewart /Savannah Music Festival via

Like the Mass, Opera and the Symphony, music for String Quartet is one of the most enduring genres in Classical Music. Since the genre’s emergence at the end of the eighteenth century to the present, generation after generation of composers have found this grouping of a cello, viola and two violins, inexhaustibly fascinating. Although there are a few notable exceptions, nearly every composer from Haydn to the present day has used this genre as a place for growth, experimentation and, above all, individual expression. Armed with its deceptively simple instrumentation, the String Quartet is capable of achieving an enormous range of textures, colors and moods, a generous sampling of which will be on tap at the April 12 performance by the world-renowned Takács Quartet.

The evening’s program begins with a representative work by the father of the String Quartet, Joseph Haydn, who, arguably, invented the genre out of necessity while working at the country estate of Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg. The ‘Sunrise’ Quartet displays the foundational form for String Quartets in the Classical Period, which was borrowed from symphonic music. The first and last movements are fast, and intervening are a slow second movement and a minuet, or, sometimes, a scherzo, which feature lighter fast music than the outer movements. Beethoven, who studied with Haydn, continued this formalism in his charming early quartets, but by they time we get to the Quartet no. 14 in c-sharp Minor, we encounter a work that is much longer and more formally diverse than its predecessors in the genre.

Dating from the final period in Beethoven’s life, the Quartet no. 14 is a leviathan and explosive gesture of Romanticism. Although this might seem hard to believe to a contemporary audience, most of Beethoven’s late works, including this quartet, were considered wildly and undesirably avant-garde. The Quartet no. 14 breaks the rules by possessing an unprecedented structural circularity, which means the audience should consider the piece as one large musical idea, instead of a series of smaller, separate gestures grouped together under one title. This continuity is built into the performance of the Quartet no. 14, because its seven movements are played without breaks between them.

Benjamin Britten

If Beethoven’s Quartet no. 14 represents the genre’s ability to portray a composer’s idiosyncrasy, and Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet represents String Quartet music’s formal origins, then Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet no. 3 in G major, proffers one example of how later composers balanced these seminal elements. The work uses a broad range of textures and colors, which harkens to the diverse material of the Beethoven, though String Quartet no. 3’s five movements are decidedly unrelated, which is more in tune with Haydn’s Classical Period quartets. Britten died two weeks before the String Quartet no. 3 was premiered, but the piece is not a personal requiem, despite its many haunting and beautiful passages. Nevertheless, the work is a culminating example of Britten’s music, not to mention more modern composers’ contributions to the long line of works written for String Quartet.
Garrett Schumann is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby. Read his other commentary.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet presents Haydn, Golijov, and Schafer

Author’s note: This article was written in November 2011 in anticipation of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s originally scheduled performance in Ann Arbor. Since then, composer Osvaldo Golijov has been entangled in a controversy over his extensive use of another composer’s music in his orchestra piece Sidereus. I wrote about the imbroglio on, but the most recent reporting on it is from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 Kohelet, the Golijov work programmed on Thursday’s concert, is also entangled in the borrowing scandal. Earlier this winter, a Brazilian journalist identified and confronted Golijov about his borrowing of a pop song in the string quartet. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Golijov has replaced that part of Kohelet since its November performance in Philadelphia, which, ostensibly, would have been the version of the piece performed in Ann Arbor last November.

With that said, please proceed to read my thoughts on Thursday’s program. What has happened to Golijov since November is exciting, but, truthfully, doesn’t have much to do with the St. Lawrence Quartet – simply, the situation adds a little more spice to what is sure to be a thrilling concert Thursday evening.

– GS 

Photo: St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

The St. Lawrence Quartet’s trip to Ann Arbor has been highly anticipated since its announcement because of the group’s collaboration with renowned Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. The recipient of some of the most prestigious awards offered to composers, Golijov’s music is among the most widely beloved in the world of contemporary music because of its unabashed reference to the composer’s unique upbringing. The child of exiled Romanian-Jewish parents, Golijov was raised in Argentina at a time when that country’s musical idea was taking shape, engendering his output with a broad base of cultural allusions spanning Eastern European Klezmer to the Tango music of Astor Piazzolla. Yet, in an intriguing twist of fate, the Golijov work we will hear on November 12 may not be the finished product of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s commission. As least as of October 24, Golijov’s piece had not been finished, described by the composer as “embryonic.”

The available criticisms of the composer’s alacrity notwithstanding, the unusual circumstances of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s upcoming performance provide you, the listeners, with an opportunity seldom offered to audiences of classical music: you get to hear a piece that is still alive. As a composer, I often stress to the performers I work with that the score is not etched in stone. In other words, every piece evolves as composers and ensembles collaborate, but the audience rarely gets to participate in that growth because the standard repertoire typically programmed on classical concerts is totally intransigent and has been for centuries. Although I cannot speculate more specifically as to how Golijov’s work – titled Kohelet – will sound, it is more than likely the St. Lawrence Quartet’s performance will be the only of its kind, ever. How often are concertgoers given a chance to hear something no other audience will experience?

Though the Golijov deadline controversy is the juiciest storyline related to the evening’s music, I imagine R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 will be the most memorable piece to most of the audience. Schafer is a well-known, successful Canadian composer who is experienced writing for string quartet and String Quartet No. 3 may be his best effort in the genre. The work is poignantly, aggressively expressive thanks to Schafer’s masterful use of the ensemble’s color. In fact, much of piece’s beginning exploits the homogenous sound of the quartet, delicately shading unison lines that moan with microtonal inflections and tightly bunched dissonances. Schafer is wise because he lets his material breath before developing it, which makes his abstract musical language easy to engage with if you’re an attentive listener. The second movement is extraordinarily divergent from the first with its high energy and pervasive vocalizations in the string parts. That’s right, we will all hear the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet hum, growl and make other vocal sounds as they play. Most satisfactory is how Schafer uses these unusual effects to add to the string parts, compellingly decorating the frenetic quartet writing instead of throwing the vocalizing into the fray as some kind of gimmick. Keep the first in second movements in your mind as you listen to the third because the way Schafer coalesces the contrasts of the preceding sound worlds is extraordinary.

Of course, book-ending these modern compositions are two string quartets by Joseph Haydn, one of the most prolific composers of the Classical Era. Both works are extremely traditional and should pair nicely with Golijov’s Kohelet and Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 insofar as the full breadth of the genre will certainly be on display. The first Haydn work is the String Quartet no. 57 in C Major, which has four delightful movements – in whole, an ideal aperitif to an evening of string quartet music. My favorite moment comes in the second movement, labeled “Andantino”, where Haydn, after briefly setting the stage introduces a stunningly delicate theme memorable to me both for its pithiness and characteristic octave doubling. Closing the concert is the String Quartet no. 61 in D minor, with its brooding opening movement that contrasts so starkly with the humorous pizzicato that accompanies the first theme of the second movement. The work’s finale opens rather nervously, regaining the angst of the opening movement and instilling it with more energy until, suddenly, the mode shifts and things brighten into the comfortable, pleasant closing bars of the piece.