Schubert: Impromptu No 4 in Ab major, D899  [7’30”]

Murray Perahia, piano

12 Gustav Klimt - Schubert at the piano

Schubert – idealized by Gustav Klimt at the end of the nineteenth century – entertains the laydeez

… but by Franz Schubert (1797–1828).  My first live encounters with the ‘classical’ repertoire took place in the old Manchester Free Trade Hall in the early 1970s.  I well remember the very first, 18 May 1972: Tippett Concerto for double string orchestra, Bruckner Four.  At the time James Loughran, insufficiently renowned father of a perhaps overly famous son (if mainly among UK football / comedy fans of a certain age), was reliably steering the Hallé through the post-Barbirolli period, and I heard Yehudi Menuhin, Adrian Boult, Claudio Arrau, Janet Baker and numerous other legends, some still in the making at the time.  Working in a shop, earning next to nothing, I could still somehow afford to buy Thursday and Sunday season tickets each year, and would rarely miss.  I was a regular at the pre-concert talks too, usually held in the Friends Meeting House off Albert Square, though not the night I found myself sitting in silence for what must have been half an hour past the appointed time, before the penny dropped that I wasn’t so much waiting for a delayed speaker as participating in a Quaker meeting.  The Friends, most unlike them, had pulled rank and reclaimed the venue.

A happier memory is a concert – again my collection of programmes allows me to be precise – on 24 November 1974, not one given by the Hallé but a recital by the Rumanian pianist Radu Lupu.  More specifically, his encore.  Already passing through the foyer as the applause rang out after the last item – whether because I was thirsty or my bus was due I don’t recall – I was halted in my tracks by some kind of magical tintinnabulation from the hall, the likes of which I’d never heard.  I couldn’t quite process it, but the thrill was palpable, and I was transfixed.  I still feel pretty much the same, and that the glistening opening of this piece is like nothing else in music, though I now realize that what I was experiencing for the first time was the unearthly, evanescent beauty of Schubert’s late piano style in this impromptu from his penultimate year.

The cascading arpeggios of that stunning opening dominate the A section of a characteristically expansive ABA structure, persisting as the accompaniment to the wonderfully consoling, echt-Schubertian counter-melody first heard at 0’55”.  B, arriving at 2’09”, is tempestuous and tender by turns.  This is Schubert now at his most Beethovenian, not least in the brief passage preparing the return of A at 5’15”, at which instant he becomes his inimitable self again.  It’s a sign of Schubert’s to-us puzzling lack of recognition in his own day that this marvellous music – all eight Impromptus are masterpieces – had to wait fully 30 years before seeing publication.

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