ALBUM REVIEW How to Be Unpopular

Mitsuko Uchida Plays Schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

“Mitsuko Uchida Plays Schubert”

Franz Schubert


From all accounts, Gustav Mahler was a formidable grouch. It’s not hard to hear this in his music — his ninth symphony is nearly an hour and a half’s worth of rich, Wagnerian lines, rife with paranoid navel-gazing over his imminent death. His orchestral song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde is a meditation on eastern philosophy and a hidden symphony meant to cheat fate (Beethoven had nine symphonies, so did Dvorak, Schubert1, Mahler knew where this was headed).

This is Mahler of Die Kindertoten Lieder (Songs on the Death of Children), Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of the Journeyman), the hammer of fate in the sixth symphony, Tragische (Tragic), and the violent marriage to a woman nearly half his age. He was the fiery conductor of the New York Philharmonic and an analysis subject for Sigmund Freud.

So why does Mahler like Schubert? How is it that Mahler, grim symbolist and macabre fatalist, can at all relate to the music of the composer most known for his party music, particularly a piano sonata he wrote while on holiday in the spa town of Bad Gastein?

It’s impossible not to talk about the elephant in the room: it’s unclear exactly how to talk about the Schubert sonatas without the backdrop of the Beethoven piano sonatas. In fact, the piano sonatas were one of Beethoven’s major outputs — the greatest piano virtuoso to date, Beethoven had already innovated the sonata form long before Schubert had begun writing his sonatas.

How awful to be writing in the wake of Beethoven: while Schubert was still familiarizing himself with the Romantic sonata form, Beethoven was well-ensconced and completing his middle-period sonatas, extensive in their formal structures, unprecedented in their difficulty both technically and harmonically, already with an eye to his succinct, minimalist late sonatas.

This isn’t necessarily Schubert’s fault — he was eighteen when he first started composing sonatas and Beethoven had a good quarter century on him. And Schubert’s challenge was clear: how to distill this new way of thinking about music — Beethoven’s way of thinking about music — without sounding like a Beethoven impersonator?

Perhaps this is an important argument to have, but, without going into too many details, it seems fairly clear: Schubert was thinking about music very differently than Beethoven. The author of over 600 songs and the very first (or at least, most innovative and formally sound) song cycles in the German language, Schubert’s approach to music is very different from Beethoven’s, whose lieder (and other vocal music, for that matter) are notoriously unapproachable and difficult to sing.

While I feel a little guilty in keeping all this in mind while listening to the Schubert sonatas, the bitter truth is that the Beethoven sonatas are, and have historically been, performed extensively while the Schubert sonatas are left to wallow in relative obscurity. And the question is: Why?

It was an interesting exercise to ask this while listening to Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of the Schubert sonatas (off the Philips label) particularly because it seems obvious that Uchida was asking this same question while thinking about her recording.

The major point of contention seems to be in asking how much Beethoven is in Schubert? Uchida seems to be able to differentiate between the two: moments such as Sonata No. 4 in Uchida’s hands seem patently Schubertian — the first movement opens with what might as well be one of his lieder — melodic lines that seem almost vocal in their construction interspersed with virtuosic piano interludes.

Or perhaps the second movement of the Sonata No. 13 (D664): yes, almost vocal in its construction, but — perhaps more importantly — Uchida shows us how novel and independent Schubert can be from any of Beethoven’s sonatas its harmonic narrative. But Uchida also shows us that Schubert can be just like Beethoven — the third and final movement seems pulled directly from Beethoven’s early period.

And it’s this approach to listening to these recordings that highlight a paradox in coming to any decision about Schubert, one which Schubert himself was obviously concerned with, and which many composers became obsessed with after him. Clearly, Schubert, having a different approach and understanding of music, should not sound like Beethoven but, almost by definition, is it bad music if he doesn’t?

To be sure: Schubert is difficult to listen to. The first movement Sonata No. 21 (D960) is somehow viscerally unsettling. The first theme clips along with a traditional hymn-like theme that suddenly freezes mid-cadence, interrupted by an ominous trill from the bellows of Schubert’s keyboard.

The second movement of Sonata No. 20 (D959), a rondo of sorts, is interspersed with recit-like passages that toe a fine line between rage and madness. And Uchida plays all these confusing passages dutifully, a diligent pianist that is sensitive to Schubert’s score in the absence of other contextual cues. Although, listening to her performance, it’s hard not to wish that she would offer some form of interpretation of this bewildering music other than what’s on the page, one can sympathize with her situation: unlike Beethoven’s pieces, this music isn’t obvious.

Pushed for a draconian précis of the fundamental differences between the Schubert and Beethoven piano sonatas and an explanation for why Beethoven’s are fundamentally more successful, it seems fair to state that Schubert’s emotional palette is more complex than Beethoven’s. Schubert’s sonatas aren’t calming, soothing or entertaining and this is their virtue.

Beethoven’s are, or, at the very least, can be, and that is theirs. The uncomfortable essence of Schubert’s piano oeuvre is that it resonates with the listener. While the Beethoven sonatas often ape the emotions they portend to depict (quasi una fantasia, Les Adieux, Pathétique, Appassionata, to name a few2) Schubert’s sonatas force the listener to traverse an emotional landscape that, at times, feels almost too present and real. Although historically, Schubert’s conception has been the less popular, it seems fair to continually re-evaluate the success of such a work.

And this is perhaps why a man like Mahler could love this music. His favorite, Sonata No. 17 (D850), Gastein, is a glistening D major piece that depicts Bad Gastein in all of its pastoral beauty. All four movements of the piece reside in major keys each of which appear to exude joy.

Schubert’s fecundity with both melody and structure appears first and foremost — and Mahler must have appreciated the work for this intellectual achievement. But how meaningful it must have been for Mahler, a man obsessed with fate and mortality, to have delved into this music. How important for Mahler not simply to have looked and politely listened to another work depicting a happy moment, but to have experienced and understood Schubert’s moments of absolute joy.

1 Well, almost — cf., Symphony #8 (the “Unfinished”). Let’s round up, why not?

2 It’s true that many of these sonatas were named posthumously by Beethoven’s editors, but this point only seems to serve the argument: that people knew what to name these pieces speak to the clarity of their depictions.