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About this Piece

Allegro moderato

When certain concert works are labelled, there is danger that truth in advertising is not entirely present. For example, Schubert’s Symphony in C, the one formerly known as No. 9, always carries with it the subtitle “The Great.” Similarly, the composer’s Piano Sonata in A of 1828 is dubbed a “grand” sonata. These designations, if they are used to describe the length and scope of the works in question, are perfectly valid. But unfortunately they tend to undermine, in the first case, Schubert’s delightful Sixth Symphony, also in C, and in the second case, his equally delightful but earlier Piano Sonata in A. 

No matter. The pleasures of the A-major Sonata on this program are both great and grand. Probably written in 1819, this work, with but three concise movements, is the most direct and economical of the Schubert sonatas; it surely is one of the most endearing. The first movement’s main theme, although tailor-made for the keyboard, is another of those countless Schubert melodies that could be set to words. Cannily, however, the composer endowed the melody with a distinctive dotted-note figure that is highly developable, sonata-allegro style. In his characteristic manner, Schubert turns the second sentence of the theme to the minor, a procedure that occurs frequently throughout the movement. A triplet figure distinguishes the airy second theme, and in fact the ascending triplet scale in single notes that leads to the second theme generates the only brilliant passage in the movement, by way of a series of scales in octaves at the beginning of the development. In contrast to this slight virtuosic indulgence, Schubert ends the movement with a six-measure coda that reflects on the main theme with simple, sighing poignance. 

The slow movement is a model of concentrated expressiveness. Built on but a single melodic idea appearing at times in uneven phrase lengths, the music unfolds with the miraculous variety of the changes of harmony, rhythm, and accompaniment. At mid-point, a transition phrase has a quasi-ominous ring as repeated drumbeats in the low bass remind us of the composer’s keen orchestral consciousness. 

The last movement is something of a whirlwind, but a charming whirlwind. There’s a lot of dance here, especially in the second theme’s rhythmic lilt. (Remember that Schubert composed dozens of dances for the piano, many ineffably lovely, some unbelievably banal.) There is also plenty of finely tuned bravura that is neither unmotivated nor excessive. The Sonata’s balances are, in fact, so wonderfully gauged and the materials so appealing, one (certainly this one) is tempted to label this Sonata “The Perfect.”

—Orrin Howard