SCHUBERT: Violin Sonata in D, D384. Violin Sonata in a, D385. Violin Sonata in g, D408. Violin Sonata in A, D574. Rondo in b, D895. Fantasy in C, D934. Sei mir gegrüsst! (transcr. for violin and piano), D471.
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano).
Hyerion CDA67911/2 TT: 73:27

Eye-opening. Outside of a few pieces, I didn't get into Schubert until my forties. I could take, but mostly I left him alone. Although I can point to no "Aha!" moment, I now want to know everything. The violin sonatas have been particularly underserved as far as the concert hall goes. Prior to this CD, I encountered only the g-minor, on an RCA LP with Heifetz. They really haven't broken into the awareness of the classical-music public at large.

Part of this we can blame on Schubert's publisher, the firm of Diabelli, who relabeled them as "sonatinas" and "duos" in order not to scare off the amateur market, which might be intimidated by a "sonata." Consequently, performers tended to trivialize them as not worth the time and talent.

This recording, however, reveals six wonderful works. The Sonata in D of March 1816 we can describe as "Mozartean" without a blush. In fact, although less structurally complex, I think it as good as any of the Mozart violin sonatas, a feat extremely difficult to pull off. Schubert began by taking Haydn and Mozart for his models and later began to incorporate Beethoven. However, in almost all of his early work, there remains something individual. The opening movement, for example, shows an eagerness to modulate to remote keys and back to the home key in a brief amount of time, often short-circuiting normal classical harmonic progression, something that becomes a Schubert musical fingerprint. The slow movement, more Haydnesque than Mozartean and less individual, nevertheless sings beautifully. The 6/8 rondo finale, again owing something to Haydn, skips capriciously, with surprising episodes of mock-serious counterpoint.

The Sonata in A minor, written the same month, shows something more personal. Schubert seems to try out Sturm und Drang and in the process leaves Haydn and Mozart behind, although not entirely forgotten. Beethoven has become a new model, with an opening theme consisting of odd leaps and descents. The themes also get fuller development than in the previous sonata. Unusually, the sonata first movement consists of three major ideas, each in its own key (a, C, and F). The slow second movement not only recalls Mozart but looks forward to Mendelssohn in the quality of its singing. The second major idea again, following the main theme of the first movement, consists largely of unexpected intervals, and again Schubert comes up with wide-ranging modulations. The brief minuet (actually, a scherzo) consists of an assertive opening and a delicate trio. The rondo finale seems caught between two eras. The exposition is classically poised, while the episodes have the intensity of Beethoven, as the violin shows its claws.

The Sonata in G minor comes from the following month -- an amazing rate of productivity, considering the quality of these three sonatas, by no means the only thing he wrote during that period. The first movement again consists of three main ideas, each in its own key (g, B-flat, and E-flat). A dotted rhythm in the unison opening dominates the movement, a unifying trick Schubert got from Beethoven. The andante second movement quotes almost note-for-note the Romanze movement from Mozart's third horn concerto. However, a little descending scalar fragment (the secondary theme), first in major, then in minor anticipates the song "Ganymed" of the following year. The scherzo (marked "Menuetto") harkens back to Mozart. The effervescent finale begins almost serenely but gradually becomes as exuberant as Figaro.

The following year brought forth Schubert's final violin sonata in A (which the publisher labeled a "duo"). What a year it must have been, since the sonata has a much larger duration scope than the previous three. The opening has a bass accompaniment that mimics that of the song "Die Forelle," written five months before in March of 1817. The movement proceeds unhurried, a fine example of what Schumann called Schubert's "heavenly lengths." Haydn and Mozart have disappeared. This movement is all Schubert, with a serenity he recaptured in the late Cello Quintet (1828). The scherzo second movement shows the influence of the Beethoven scherzo, with extreme dynamic contrasts, syncopations, fragmentary sections, and once more Schubert's fondness for modulations to remote keys. Some composers -- Tchaikovsky comes to mind -- move heaven and earth just to modulate. Schubert easily slips in and out. The slow movement at first hearing seems a throwback to a rather simple classicism, but few classical composers could have conceived (or perhaps even understood) the harmonic scheme. The music begins in C, but you quickly find yourself in D-flat with little idea of how you arrived there. The final rondo recalls the scherzo, especially in its capriciousness. It jumps like lambs in Spring, with gentler pastoral episodes.

These four violin sonatas particularly impress as examples of the chamber-music ideal of a conversation between equals. The two instruments talk easily to one another, one backing up the other taking the lead or deftly passing the lead on and quietly commenting. Schubert mastered this combination of violin and piano. However, he didn't try it again until 1826.

A rare example of Schubert's virtuosic writing, the Rondo in b (also known as the Rondeau brillant), created after the nearly decade-long gap, has the gravitas of late Schubert while fully living up to the promise of brilliant display. He did compose it for the Czech virtuoso Josef Slavik. A longish movement of over 13 minutes, with strong elements of sonata form handled not classically but experimentally, it begins almost like a French overture, with its forceful double-dotted rhythm, and soon begins taking day trips to remote keys. A cantabile section follows, but Schubert doesn't let up on the modulations. The double-dots return and after about 3 minutes, this introductory section ends on two notes, a step apart, blurring the tonality. These two notes then carry over to start the main theme of the rondo. Tonality hovers between b-minor and D-major, then b-minor and B major in the first episode, which also begins with the same two notes. The development of each episode is substantial as are the long transitions from episode to main theme. Much of the music again plays off two notes a step apart. Beethoven obsesses over four notes in the Fifth Symphony. Schubert needs only two. The long, long buildup to the finish, from about 5 minutes out, particularly impresses.

The Fantasy in C, also written for Slavik, comes from 1827, the year before Schubert died. Slavik premiered it in 1828. It lacks the formal cohesion of the Rondo, but then again it is a fantasy, a genre that doesn't require architectural rigor. Rather, Schubert's fantasy strings together separate sections: a longish introduction, a technically brilliant allegro (marked "allegretto"), a substantial slow set of four variations (the longest section of the piece by far) based on the song "Sei mir gegrüsst!" (1821-22, text by Rückert), and a bravura finale, which the liner notes by Richard Wigmore rightly compare to the Marches militaires. The variations make the piece, as far as I'm concerned.

Finally, we get an encore of the original "Sei mir gegrüsst!," a song popular in Schubert's lifetime and here transcribed for violin and piano. Formally daring, it has the "feel" of a strophic song (same music for each poetic stanza), but it is really through-composed. Schubert accomplishes this in two ways: beginning with roughly the same idea and varying the middle; ending with the same tag on the words "Sei mir gegrüsst!." Harmonically, the song ranks as one of the composer's most subtle. It begins in B-flat, very quickly (one note altered) winds up in D, and just as quickly returns to B-flat. As the song proceeds, we get more of this. All this technical foofaraw aside, the song is one of Schubert's most beautiful.

I can pay Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien no greater compliment than to say that they disappear into Schubert. These readings -- so complexly shaded, so beautifully phrased -- have become some of my favorite chamber recordings. The give-and-take is elegant and the emotional discernment as close to perfect as possible. Certainly they surpass anyone else I've heard in this repertoire. They also have recorded albums of Ravel and of Szymanowski. I've got my order in.

S.G.S. (December 2014)