Recorded July 1985
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If experienced physically, a hearing of the 5th and 6th books of Gesualdo's madrigals would result in the listener's death. The effect of catharsis prevents us, however, from taking art "too seriously". I remember with nostalgic poignancy the day when, as a student at the Moscow Conservatory College, I heard for the first time Schubert's last quartet. Despite my determination to concentrate mainly on the technical aspects of the piece, I could not help feeling that, especially in the second and the fourth movements, the music reached beyond its own limits, becoming somehow a dictionary-like definition of the word "horror". Many years later I had a similar impression in Milan while visiting an important exhibition of Munich's paintings and engravings. "We feel that we are on the brink of some absolute truth, dazzling in its splendour and at the same time almost homely in its perfect simplicity," says Nabokov about a work of a writer he invented. Absolute truth - or its musical equivalent, perfect harmony - may be found and enjoyed by a sentimental listener in the works of almost every composer, Schgbert included. Indeed, Schubert's early works, his lieder in particular, provide us with an impressive number of celestial themes whose development is scarcely perturbed by casual dissonances which eventually dissolve into a serene happy ending. Likewise, the B-flat sonata begins without any major-minor switches so characteristic of Schubert's late works. But that anticipation of an imminent disclosure - "we are on the brink of some absolute truth" - peters out, fades away, neutralized by the tonal restlessness, let alone the low-pitched trill, the most uncanny trill in the history of music.
"The man is dead and we do not know it." The sonata is over and what we are left with resembles far more a horrifying falsehood than an absolute, dazzling truth, which seemed to be hinted at in the opening bars.
Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est la,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette plaisible rumeur-la
Vient de la ville.
Just another example of weirdness in art: life is close enough to make one suffer like Tantalus, and yet it is too far away to be within one's reach. The poet's being in prison, at the time, does not detract from the omnipresent value of the poem. (Ver-laine was aware that city-life, its rambling and rattling, could hardly be considered peaceful and simple. Yet compared with his own inner turbulence it was peaceful: another weird touch). The apparent simplicity and calmness of the outer world may have inspired Schubert to those dance rhythms which, in the final movement of the B-flat sonata, are darkened by the monstrous intrusions of minor cords. It is as if a merry tipsy yokel playing his fiddle were suddenly struck by lightning.
The whole procedure reminds me of what Bergson said about the soul being able to merge in God only temporarily, however strong the mystical elan; for something remains outside - the will which created the union.
Two years ago, that participation and non-participation, that double-pattern of Schubert's late works mingled strangely with my own literary preoccupations. During my trip to the south of Germany I hit upon the idea of writing a novel whose protagonist would endeavour to identify himself with Louis II of Bavaria. The identification is never complete; the fissure in my hero's identity gives rise to all sorts of double-pattern situations whose unswerving progress leads to a suicide - nothing more than a broken mirror. "Every now and then, I happen to overlook a line, a dot, a plant growing on my terrace, a leaf rustling under my slippers, a pain revelling in my stomach. I am regularly faced with the prospect of correcting my glaring mistakes, of adding the missing lines, plants and pains to my picture, of subjoining postscripts to my letters. To sum up, let me say that neither French nor English affords me an opportunity to gain a foothold on firm ground. Wagner is of no help either."
All those links and coincidences surfaced once again when, in Lockenhaus, Gidon asked me to play the B-flat sonata as a substitute for some cancelled trio. Louis II had already been finished; I was reading Montaigne's essays (Nous avons eu raison de faire valoir les forces de notre imagination, car tous nos biens ne sont qu'en songe); I was thinking about my fourth novel. Unhampered by the automatism of concert tours, favoured by the easygoing musicianship of the festival, my memories, readings and projects fused into a pleasant synthesis which, being recorded, helps me now to conjure up visions of that midsummer night, of that hall in the Burg where I played the sonata. I am only afraid that my inborn sentimentality makes me condone too easily the shortcomings of my interpretation.
Afanassiev Plays Schubert's Sonata in B-flat-major at Lockenhaus
By Joachim Kaiser
At the Lockenhaus Festival of 1985, founded by Gidon Kremer, Valery Afanassiev played Schubert's great Sonata in B Flat Major (for a trio that had canceled its engagement).The musical result was issued on ECM New Series. What we hear is brazen in every respect. Anyone who thought that Sviatoslav Richter's obsessively slow rendition of the work - especially of the first "molto moderato" movement - was extreme, is in for a surprise. Richter's famous interpretation of 1972 actually seems tame and traditional by comparison to Afanassiev's daring performance in which even silence is included, in which fermatas reverberate endlessly until the music once again spreads out its wings in startled softness, as if coming from far, far away.
A simple calculation shows how very much the two interpretations diverge. Richter's first movement takes two minutes longer although Afanassiev plays certain preliminaries and halting phrases markedly slower than his predecessor! He must therefore play considerably faster elsewhere, for otherwise how could the movement as a whole take less time? The development of the first conclusion (bars 113-121 in the exposition of the opening movement) is a run of matchless expressivity, broken by rests and fermatas, and leading to a frenetic fortissimo catastrophe (wild dissonances followed by the prolonged minor trill in the deepest bass, to be played "ffz").The main movement, with its gradually unfolding melody in B flat major, emerges out of an unbelievably weighty dream of creation or- if you will forgive the expression - out of a "big bang". Many interpreters of Schubert have, until recently, simply omitted this unutterably expressive first conclusion along with the prescribed repetition of the exposition, thus curtailing the zigzag course of the sonata - as if they were in a hurry!
Afanassiev makes an event out of this often deleted recurrence, comparable to that eerie halt in the adagio of Schubert's quintet, where six recitative, hesitant measures preceding the reprise last longer than the entire finale of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. Afanassiev treats us to extreme rests and standstills that do not give the impression of distorting the rhythm but rather create fields of eternity in which earthly rhythm and measure are suspended-where silence reigns. This extraordinary interpretation forces us to revise our premises. We are inclined to assume that artists whom we would classify as intellectual or highly conscious take a clear, exact, strictly ordered approach, which entails the risk of a certain stiffness, dryness and lack of drive. More instinctive musicians need not fear such pitfalls, but, being temperamental, may fail to grasp the profound gravity and subtle argument of great music. Afanassiev seems to be a musical intellectual, but he does not merely rattle off the findings of his meticulous studies with ready predictability and, in fact, ignores the established "Schubert style" with its (supposedly) sacrosanct basic tempo. Afanassiev's performance demonstrates that unobtrusive rests or prescribed fermatas may turn the molto moderato movement into a gigantic adagio but also that the staccato eighth-note triplets tend towards a fast allegro.
The performance is alienating, shattering, disturbing but never boring or unduly prolonged. It is a pity that the extraordinary interpreter Afanassiev sometimes proves to be an ordinary pianist. He has certainly mastered the technical requirements of this sonata although he does show a tendency to string out his chords. These minor shortcomings, which might provoke the ire of the serious educator, are basically irrelevant. Like Edwin Fischer, Afanassiev wants - and is certainly able -to reveal what he considers important in Schubert's Sonata in B Flat Major (reading the andante as a largo, toning down the scherzo and lending the finale dramatic excitement). Obviously there are pianists with greater 'skill' but certainly no one today would hazard a freer, more audacious, more eccentric Schubert interpretation. I would not recommend imitating this Russian brazenness but it certainly merits highly attentive listening.
Reprinted from: Suddeutsche Zeitung, 19. Dec. 1986.
With kind permission of the author.
Translation: Catherine Schelbert