Gothic Fest

Some thoughts on recording Schubert's violin sonatas of 1816
February 2020Reflections

This reflection forms part of Schubert 1816: a recording of Franz Schubert’s three violin sonatas of 1816, released on Athene with Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins. Described as 'exemplary' in The Strad, this recording was selected as American Record Guide Critics’ Choice 2020

It is always a treat to indulge in Mozartkugeln when visiting Salzburg. Dark chocolate, marzipan and nougat are an irresistible trio for this chocaholic minstrel. But what does such a confectionary delight actually have to do with Mozart? Are we to believe that his music is merely a sweetmeat?

The collective unconscious might say yes. For many, Mozart continues to be regarded as comfortable wallpaper music. Its translucent textures and clear musical syntax have become an easy passport to sophistication. Perish the thought that one might smudge the music’s makeup and explore the darker sonorities of Mozart’s oeuvre or, worse still, add ornaments – or ‘emblemishments’. Who are we to tarnish his perfect canvases with aural carbuncles?

Schubert’s music sometimes suffers a similar fate. And what an ill-doomed fate it is. To convey only seamlessly spun lines and a beautiful blend of sounds is an abrogation of creative responsibility. How can one justify such an approach in light of the unexpected accents that pepper Schubert’s scores, or the deliberate play with expectation when phrases are irregular and uncomfortable? Surely Schubert was not impervious to the then pervading influence of the Gothic. At a time when the salon – or Schubertiad – encouraged a cross-fertilization of the arts, it seems likely that the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in 1818 had a powerful effect on Schubert’s art. We need only recall the father’s sheer terror in Erlkönig to realize that we are confronting a Gothic Horror Movement.

Such thoughts as these have spurred on Peter Sheppard Skærved and me when performing Schubert’s Sonatas (not ‘Sonatinas’) for Violin and Piano. We treat the score not as an ‘Urtext’ edition, in which the notation is often hallowed as the composer’s final (and ‘best’) version, but rather what I teasingly call a ‘Blurtext’ edition – in which the work is a map that offers options rather than answers. For instance, we occasionally swap lines on repeats, add fioriture and cadenzas, and even indulge in a petite reprise when concluding a dance. In short, we strive to interact creatively with the music.

Surprisingly, Schubert seems not to have owned his own piano in Vienna, the ‘city of a thousand piano makers’. This reminds us that his culture was one in which a pluralist approach to keyboard instruments meant that one often used whatever was available. The so-called square piano is capable of great tonal subtlety and is not at all a poor cousin to the fortepiano. (Elgar even signed off some of his works on the soundboard of his Broadwood square.) Peter and I find that this seemingly diminutive instrument offers immediacy and nuance when playing Schubert’s mercurial sonatas. What we offer here is just one of many ways of negotiating anew the treasures of his musical map.

© Julian Perkins


Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins rehearsing at the Royal Academy of Music Museum. Photo: Malene Skærved
Monk in the Snow. Caspar David Friedrich (1807/1808).
Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Wilhelm August Rieder (1875), after his watercolour of 1825.
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