Schubert's drama, intimacy and humour were brilliantly articulated by pianist James Lisney last night, as part of a celebration of the Complete Sonatas. Lisney is playing a series of four concerts, showcasing eleven completed works drawn from 21 sonata projects. Each concert draws from all three sonata-writing periods in the composer's life, contributing to the SJE Arts Oxford International Piano Series 2017.
A sparkling pre-concert talk by Lisney placed Schubert in the musical tradition of Bach and Beethoven. Acknowledging Schubert's debt to both, Lisney maintained that in the brilliance of Schubert's late sonatas, he stood 'side by side with Beethoven – possibly even surpassing him,' rather than in his shadow.
Lisney chose to open with one of Schubert's earliest surviving sonatas Piano Sonata in B major, D 575 which was written in August 1817. Its grandiloquent opening, its sweetness, melody and longing are all present, but also startling harmonic shifts, wide ranging tessotura, and contrapuntal scherzo, characterising it as one of Schubert's most boldly experimental pieces.
The magnificent Piano Sonata in C Minor D958 dates from the first anniversary of Beethoven's death. There are many allusions and passages modelling the earlier composer, but they are superbly integrated with Schubert's creative imagination. Lisney's evident enjoyment: his 'velvet touch and wide range of colour' transfixed the audience who responded with rapturous applause.
Lisney ended with Piano Sonata in G major D 894. In his pre-concert talk, he'd alluded to the unorthodox use of the pedal in a way 'no piano teacher would sanction'. The deep calm of the opening is broken by what Lisney called 'the most extreme dynamics in all of his piano music'. This is a marking of triple forte. The ecossaises of the 'Finale' were played with such precision, wit and humour that Schubert himself might have risen to reach for his coat and step out into the dark Oxford night with a smile of satisfaction. We had heard a masterful Schubertian give a wonderful account of some of the greatest piano music ever composed.