Classical music: Schubert

Although I had this page here along with those for Brahms & Beethoven, the comments were not as developed. However, among European composers of the 1700s & 1800s, it is to Schubert's music that I find myself most drawn of late, and so I've set about to rewrite this page. Of course, there is considerable discussion of Schubert's music elsewhere, and I am not going to pretend to tackle that body of work with any particular insight. This page will hopefully be worthwhile for those who have been interested in my discussions of other music, whether newer or older, and might be curious about these impressions.

Whereas "controlled" and "concise" seem like relevant terms for discussing Beethoven and Brahms respectively, Schubert is expansive and resigned. These days, the only pieces by Beethoven that I enjoy much are some of the piano sonatas, particularly the last three, and part of that is the degree of ego that shines through in his music. It can be hard to take, and in it, we have the prototype of the composer as "control freak" which is such a factor for all later composed music, whether to be embraced or rejected. Schubert was impressed by Beethoven, of course, and the latter's control of form, but the elements of control in Schubert's music only extend so far. Some themes seem to come from elsewhere... imposed on the music, on the composer, and really a reflection of life. When life is hard for me personally, this tumultuous interaction with forces beyond the forefront of the music are what draw me to Schubert, and the way he handles such interactions.

That Schubert's music is expansive almost goes without saying. In fact, I'm preparing this page together with my first writeup on Morton Feldman, and there are aspects of their music that I find compelling in similar ways. Schubert's music, with its expansive themes & repeats, glories in raw sound at times. It's sumptuous music in that sense, beyond any particular intellectual conception. So, good sound quality is important, and some of the "thinner" older recordings are hard for me to enjoy as much.

It is Schubert's string music that generally resonates with me the most. The emotionally searing Quartet in G is the piece I explicitly think of as the soundtrack to my life sometimes. The more suspended & sophisticated Quintet is also of great appeal, as is the more straightforward drama of the Death and the Maiden Quartet. I very much enjoy this set, by a group of younger performers, and in modern sound:

Schubert: String Quintet / String Quartets in G & d minor
Belcea Quartet / Valentin Erben
EMI Classics 67025 (2 CDs)

They do a particularly fine Death and the Maiden, and their take on the Quintet (here replacing the Alban Berg Quartet version, also with Valentin Erben) is also highly appealing. I don't know if I'll ever hear my perfect version of the G major Quartet, but this is as good as any available (as far as I know).

It seems almost deceptive to have the above three pieces on one CD set, in that it makes for only a small slice of a page like this, a single citation. These are three of my favorite pieces of music, and the fact that I enjoy all three performances on this one recording is kind of amazing. I don't want to overstate, because although I've heard many performances of these works, I certainly haven't heard them all, but put together like this, they form a singular & signature group of music in the general field of European classical music.

Beyond the string music, Schubert's last three piano sonatas make a fitting parallel with Beethoven's, and are also highly compelling music on their own terms, despite having somewhat less color than the quartets. They practically define expansive, but also exemplify this idea of internal & external themes. A fine set:

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas
Paul Lewis
Harmonia Mundi 902165.66 (2 CDs)

Although there are numerous possibilities for these piano sonatas, particularly as the final three are so often recorded together, this is quite a compelling reading: There is a wonderful combination of lightness & gravity to the tone & fingering. This is also an intelligent conception that does not dwell in bombast, but clarifies lines and rewards repeated listening. I continue to find this music profound & persuasive.

It is truly amazing how much incredible music Schubert wrote in 1827 & 1828, barely 30 years old. The second Piano Trio, in Eb, also creates a distinctive sound world & impression of its own, and has grown into something of a favorite over time, although not at the level of the previously mentioned pieces. Another fine recording:

Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100
Andreas Staier / Daniel Sepec / Roel Dieltiens
Harmonia Mundi 902233.34 (2 CDs)

This "period instruments" performance allows the balance of the trio to present itself more readily, rather than via forced restraint from modern instruments. (In other words, the contemporary instruments, particularly the piano, don't have the same balance. And let's remember that the piano trio genre was motivated in part by desire to boost the piano's relatively weak tone.) Although the liner notes tout the Bb Trio as well, it's the Eb Trio that stands out for me: The sense of ensemble is different from Schubert's other late works, perhaps more evocative of (historical) chamber music per se.

My preference in classical music has always run toward the smaller chamber ensembles, but of course Schubert wrote in various forms. Despite e.g. the acclaim of his Winterreise, I have just never taken to the lied form. However, I do enjoy the symphonic work sometimes, so a recording:

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 & 9
Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sir Charles Mackerras
Telarc 80502

The Great C Major Symphony presents something of a pinacle in Schubert's oeuvre, and of course the Unfinished includes some other spectacular passages.

Back to Classical music page.

Todd M. McComb
Rewritten: 19 January 2012
Last (minor) update: 3 January 2018