Piano Sonatas D664, 769a & 894 – Stephen Hough (piano). Hyperion, 2022
Schubert’s “heavenly length”, a term coined by Schumann specifically in relation to Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, is also very much in evidence in the late piano sonatas, whose first movements can last as long as an entire Beethoven sonata. There is a sense of traversing a vast terrain, travelling deep into Schubert’s musical landscape where accumulated motifs, themes, structures and repeated elements bring meaning and narrative scope.
The first movement of Schubert’s G major piano sonata, D894, which opens this new recording from recently-knighted Stephen Hough, is certainly expansive, the ideas spread out, yet each clearly delineated, from the chordal, prayer-like first subject to the delicately dancing second subject (where the cantabile clarity of the upper registers of the piano is utterly beguiling in Hough’s hands). Hough favours a molto moderato which moves forward with vigour and colour when required but also allows time to savour all the details and nuances of this wondrous first movement.
The second movement is genial and intimate, a simple aria elegantly sculpted by Hough, reminding us that this is music for the salon rather than the concert hall. Hough really appreciates this, creating intimacy and introspection through supple phrasing and rubato, pauses (so important in Schubert’s music to create drama and breathing space) and tasteful pedalling.
The third movement scherzo revisits the chords of the first movement, this time in B minor, its robustness quickly offset by another dance figure. The trio, almost entirely in ppp, weaves a pretty melody around a handful of notes, with an offbeat bassline, like the memory of a forgotten Viennese waltz. And when the music shifts into the major key, it is almost more tender and poignant than when Schubert is writing in the minor key. The rondo finale is also a dance, graceful yet playful, occasionally insistent, played with an elegant clarity and some delicious bass details.
A curious interlude between two complete sonatas comes with the unfinished sonata fragment in E minor, D769a, a mere 1 minute of music yet profound and inventive in its expression. It finishes on a repeated figure, pianist and listener suspended, wondering where Schubert might have gone next with this music.
The Sonata in A, D664, is wholly delightful, Schubert at his most good-humoured. The affable first movement sings in Hough’s hands, while the second movement is thoughtful, poignant and tender, marked by gently sighing phrases. The sunny mood is soon restored in the finale, to which Hough brings a joyful light-heartedness with its tumbling scales and dance-like passages.
The recording was made on a C Bechstein Model D piano and there’s an intimacy and warmth to the piano sound which perfectly suits Schubert’s introspection, while a bright but sweet treble brings a lovely clarity to the melody lines and highlights Hough’s deftness of touch.