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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano (1816) Op.137
Sonata No.1 in D major D.384 [14:25]
Sonata No.2 in A minor D.385 [22:06]
Sonata No.3 in G minor D.408 [22:07]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
Julian Perkins (square piano)
rec. 2015, St John the Baptist, Aldbury, UK
ATHENE 23208 [58:38]

They were frequent musical companions during my teenage years, but I’d almost forgotten Schubert’s three sonatas Op.137 for violin and piano until recently, when Alina Ibragimova performed the second of the three with pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Wigmore Hall in June, during the series of twenty wonderful lockdown-defying concerts that were streamed live from the Hall and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved evidently shares my fond memories. In an essay, ‘Young Schubert, A Violinist’s Journey’, in the liner booklet accompanying this recording of the three Sonatas he writes of his long enchantment by ‘Schubert’s early works for the violin’ and ‘his work with his violin-playing brother, Ferdinand’. Skærved suggests that Schubert had two distinct compositional approaches to the violin: the first virtuosic (the concertante works with orchestra, the C major Fantasie and B minor Rondeau) and the second weaving violin and piano together ‘in perfect balance of technical and musical concision’.

I’m not so sure. Skærved notes that the tessitura of the violin part in the sonatas is fairly narrow, as is the range exploited by the piano, and he puts this down to the composer’s desire for economy of expression and the nature of the keyboard instruments available to Schubert. The ‘modest’ writing is, he argues, ‘a deliberate turn to classical economy of means, also reflected in the structure of the three pieces as a group’. I’d contend instead that in these works we see a young, immensely talented and ambitious composer learning his art. In contrast to other composers whose early chamber music is lost or was destroyed by the composer – Brahms’s early string quartets, say – Schubert’s first essays in the genre are extant, enabling us to appreciate his musical growth. Schubert’s other youthful compositions such as the early string quartets – the first significant quartet dates from 1814, just two years before these sonatas, and was also published posthumously – show evidence of harmonic and formal experimentation, individuality and offer passages of great beauty, but also have moments of mundanity and repetitiveness, with the violin writing often unadventurous and the two fiddles frequently doubling in octaves. The Op.137 sonatas, and also the seven piano sonatas composed before 1820, share the same characteristics as the early quartets.

Furthermore, Skærved charges Diabelli, who published the sonatas after Schubert’s death and altered the titles to ‘Sonatina’, of thereby cementing the notion that they were intended for dilettantes and amateurs. Yet, during my research for this review I located numerous late 19th-century reports which praise these ‘Sonatas’ – both the music itself and the professional performance of them – suggesting that they were not ‘down-graded’ in performers’ and critics’ eyes by Diabelli’s labelling. Skærved’s argument gets more muddled when he ropes in Beethoven’s statement that the Op.95 String Quartet should not be performed in public as evidence that the domestic performing environment – Diabelli’s presumed market – does not ‘preclude profundity’. There are few, surely, who would make a connection between Schubert’s Op.137 sonatas and Beethoven’s astonishingly concentrated and musically varied quartet?

The booklet does, however, contain some fascinating reflections on the implications and effects of performing these sonatas on a square piano, as Julian Perkins does here (a Clementi & Co. instrument of 1812), and the difference between north- and south- of the Alps contemporary violins (Skærved eventually settled on a Leopold Widhalm (1722-1760) fiddle, ‘full of nuance and colour’). And, Skærved offers very personal, affectionate commentaries on each movement of each sonata, which confirm his real commitment to this music. I can’t make much sense of Perkins’ own discussion of Schubert’s purported ‘Gothic Fest’, which he suggests was directly prompted by the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. The minor-key sonatas do develop Schubert’s gift for drama and melody, and include hints of his famous song, ‘Erlkönig’, which was composed the previous year. But, I can’t say that any of the sonatas’ movements strike me as being a ‘Gothic Horror Movement’.

It feels as if in their extensive written commentaries, Skærved and Perkins are trying rather too hard. These sonatas are Mozartian not Beethovian. They were written when Schubert was 19 years old, in the same year that he turned from string quartets to works for violin (in 1816 he also composed four light-hearted Ländlers for two violins). They promote melody at the expense of development. They are also songful, dramatic, expressively varied, delightful to play and offer the listener much pleasure, as Skærved and Perkins confirm in the fine and sometimes idiosyncratic performances presented here.

There’s real grace and easefulness at the start of the D major sonata, but also excitement. The unison triads of the opening theme are simple but the slightest of pauses in the silence at the end of the four-bar phrases injects a note of anticipation, and the change to a two-part texture is marked by a well-judged upwelling from the violin’s growly G string. The soft patter of the square piano is given character by the slightest of ‘edges’, which is complemented by the grainy warmth of the Wildhalm violin. Accents and staccato are well-defined but not excessively pronounced, and the duo make the counterpoint sing expressively, especially when the theme shifts into the minor mode, though the tension is short-lived, swept away by the sunniness of the coda. The latter, when repeated, is decorated with some characterful ornaments – Perkins explains that they have considered the score to be a ‘Blurtext edition’ which invites free invention at times. But, for all the arguments presented about the ‘magnitude’ of these sonatas, the predominant spirit of these performances is, to my ears, quite aptly unemphatic and not overly dramatic. Contrasts are observed, nuances offer interest, but Classical balance and lyricism generally prevail.

Perkins’ crisp dotted rhythms enhance the dance-like perkiness of the Andante, though there’s again a marked change of mood with the modulation to the minor key in the central section: here, I find Skærved’s tone and phrasing very expressive, but the slithering scales and twisting trills and turns with which he decorates the melody seem excessive. Surely not idiomatic of either Classical or early Romantic style, they seem more Baroque in their improvisatory theatricality, and in any case Schubert prescribes his own acciaccaturas and turns where he deems them appropriate. In the Andante vivace, the duo trade the blithe melody back and forth, with nuanced ebb and flow, forging a very genteel and amiable conversation, though they don’t neglect the sophistication of some of the writing.

Perhaps Perkins might have found more restlessness in the piano’s pulsations at the start of the Allegro moderato which opens the A minor Sonata, but the entry of the violin’s leaping exclamations – each minim crisply marked and slightly separated – initiates a propulsion which is sustained throughout the movement. Similarly, while the development section is tense, I hear more mystery in the chromatic piano’s left-hand chromatic windings than Perkins conveys, and his right-hand quavers are rather heavy, given the ppp dynamic. But both players capture the changefulness of the music, communicate the lyricism eloquently, and move between the varied moods persuasively. An emphatic tread, some arpeggiated chords and elaboration of Schubert’s ornaments gives an unexpected stature to the Andante but it is neither unwelcome nor unconvincing. I particularly like the way the musicians illuminate the diversity of expression in the Menuetto: the first phrase transforms from an assertive grittiness to a wry wisp, in the space of three bars! And, the Trio is a delicate and sweet complement to the rhythmic definition of the Menuetto. The final Allegro is purposeful, and the musical expression feels concentrated and taut.

The dramatic intensity is sustained in the opening movement of the G minor sonata, though Skærved might have given his quiet, oscillating and racing semiquavers rather more definition, for they sound a little blurred, especially against the sharply chiselled falling pairs of the piano’s melody. Similarly, in the development section, though the dotted crotchets which initiate the violin’s motifs are accented and sustained, the tail ends of the phrases fade into a whisper, submerged within the quite weighty quavers in the piano bass. The contrasting dynamics in the violin line are exciting but a better balance between the two instruments is needed for them to be entirely effective. A steady tempo – more Adagio than Andante – is selected for the slow movement, and while this does have the advantage of making the melodic minutiae elegantly songful rather than ‘merely’ decorative, and allows for the insertion of additional ornamentation, I find Skærved’s frequent breaking off of the phrases and rather aggressive accents and dynamic surges can disrupt the lyricism of the extended phrases. But, the ebullient Menuetto has panache and agility aplenty, and is followed by a suavely singing Trio. The Allegro moderato epitomises Schubert’s melodic fecundity and ready invention – though I do question whether some of the violin’s improvisatory antics are necessary or beneficial. It is played with engaging alertness and vivacity, and romps home with foot-stamping freedom.

In the final reckoning, Skærved and Perkins let the music do the talking, and it speaks confidently and compellingly.

Claire Seymour

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