In October and November Martino Tirimo gave the first integral public performance of Schubert’s piano sonatas (i.e. 23, omitting no.6 as a first version of no.7, and the fragmentary nos.8 and 14, but also completing, from existing material, seven unfinished movements). The cycle was not only as complete as possible but actually more so; not all these works are in fact identifiable unities. But the total picture was firmly framed and supported by the scholarly work of the late Maurice Brown (see Oct MT, p.873), to whose memory the cycle was fittingly and touchingly dedicated; and the programme benefited from his typically thorough and perceptive notes.
Though not in chronological order, the performance offered some new light on Schubert's achievements in the genre, which is certainly sui generis. His piano sonatas have long puzzled the pundits. as being atypical in both form and texture (“overlong”, “unpianistic” and so on). It now seems sensible to conceive them not as faltering steps on a well-trodden path but as great strides in a novel direction. They suggest some possibly interesting parallels with the contemporary Eichendorff Novelle, as well as with visual art from Watteau to the Impressionists. There the background depicts Greek temples and statues, like Schubert's classical structures and figures. In the foreground are human feelings personified as (say) a troupe of strolling players, singing and dancing. That phrase might serve to describe some of Schubert's themes. Thus his ideas are either rigidly formal, or else so wayward that they seem unlikely ever to stop unless arrested for vagrancy. No wonder the music sometimes sounds perplexing; new sonorities and time-scales are needed to accommodate elements so disparate.
On this view it might not he wholly a reproach to a pianist to say (as one could of Tirimo) that his Schubert has some very musical moments but lacks musical momentum. It may be that continuity and progression are in fact less relevant here than in other sonatas, if so, lingering by the wayside might be the best way to proceed. More substantial is the point that Tirimo’s technique and memory are occasionally fallible. His own programme note offers the guileless observation that when he was invited by Hessischer Rundfunk to record Schubert’s A flat sonata, he thought that there must be some mistake. I confess that the same thought fleetingly occurred to me during one rather graceless fortissimo. But the final weight of achievement was more than counterbalancing. Not only the pianist but even the composer have arguably gained in stature by this impressively large-scale exhibition of their work. The ambience of the Purcell Room was especially apt for this intimate domestic music, the excellence and abundance of which was brought home, in a real sense, to a grateful and receptive audience.
The Musical Times, Dec.1975 (p. 1078) © the estate of eric sams