Schubert: Piano Sonatas D. 784 & 959

Eric Lu

Schubert: Piano Sonatas D. 784 & 959

He might have been playing Schubert’s music since he was a teenager, but Eric Lu still finds something new in every performance. “You can never feel exactly the same way; each time there’s a discovery, based on what’s going on in your life or even what time of day it is,” the US pianist tells Apple Music. For his third album—following a concert recording as part of his prize for winning the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition and a solo recital featuring Chopin’s 24 Préludes—Lu has selected two of Schubert’s most exquisitely crafted sonatas. The Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959 is one of three sonatas composed in 1828 and published posthumously a decade later. It was written while Schubert was suffering from the illness that would soon end his life, and his reflective mood can be felt throughout the bleak melodies. While other pianists have chosen to program D. 959 alongside its companion works, Lu has instead selected the Piano Sonata No. 14 in A Minor, D. 784, a piece composed slightly earlier, in 1823. The compact, clean-lined Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915 binds the program together. “There is tragedy in this music,” says Lu. “It feels a bit like a dead man walking—yet it’s all extremely beautiful. Schubert takes you on a journey, and with each listen, you realize how the different themes relate to each other emotionally. It’s fascinating.” Although Schubert’s not exactly a neglected composer, his piano music is often overshadowed by that of his contemporaries, as was the case during his lifetime. “Schubert is not always included in that elite group alongside Beethoven and Mozart, and he should be,” says Lu. “He barely had any recognition beyond his immediate circle and still continued to write this wonderful music. That he only lived to 31 is one of the greatest musical tragedies.” Read on, as Eric Lu takes us through each of the three Schubert works on his album. Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959 “This Sonata has a more complex form than some of Schubert’s earlier ones, but it’s the emotional intensity that makes the music special. There is a driving melody in the first movement that hints at the later drama. Schubert doesn’t really let himself go here; everything feels a little bit up in the air—in the heavens, maybe. The second movement ‘Andantino’ is, for me, the most important. The theme is so beautiful, so pure, and very haunting. There is a sense of calm, however, as is so often the case in Schubert’s late works: the acceptance of a terrible fate. The piece could end there, and it would still be a masterpiece, but somehow Schubert manages to continue to the ‘Scherzo,’ the lighter third movement, and then the ‘Rondo,’ with a simple, pure melody borrowed from an earlier piece. Although I’ve heard this fourth movement many times, it still moves me every time I play it. It’s not a tragic or triumphant ending, as you might get with Beethoven, but instead an atmosphere of sad nostalgia.” Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915 “I paired the Sonatas based on their keys. The album focuses on the connection between the keys of A major and A minor, and I wanted a short piece in between the main works. I eventually settled on this compact Allegretto. In a way, it’s quite simple music, but it’s surprisingly difficult to play. It’s a lonely piece, packed with introspection. Schubert peeps his head out from the depths of his thoughts near the end but ultimately buries himself back into the music.” Piano Sonata No. 14 in A Minor, Op. posth. 143, D. 784 “In the previous Sonata, Schubert seems at peace with his sadness, but in this piece, an earlier work, there is more struggle. The first movement is dark, with contrasting themes that are both so touching. There is fury and desperation, and then this quiet, funereal melody, which I think is Schubert’s attempt to calm down. The second movement is more obscure; there are several small motifs that appear throughout the score, and they feel quite spooky in some ways. It is really beautiful music—Schubert is bearing his soul. The third and final movement feels a bit like a horse galloping into the night: the ascending scales and chords at the beginning could be hooves. Schubert also includes a second theme that is so stunning it blew me away the first time I heard it. The drama then develops towards the end—Schubert doesn’t unleash his full power often, but when he does, it’s remarkable.”

Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959
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Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915
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Piano Sonata No. 14 in A Minor, Op. Posth. 143, D. 784 "Grande Sonate"
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