Sunday, July 21, 2013

Adding Schubert's mighty "Wanderer" to our roster of musical fantasies

Clifford Curzon plays the first two sections of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, in a 1949 Decca recording. You'll find the rest of the performance below.

by Ken

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated "Fantasy Week at Sunday Classics" with a fantastic roundup that included the Choral Fantasy (for piano, soloists, chorus, and orchestra) of Beethoven, the Hungarian Fantasia (for piano and orchestra) of Liszt, and the Scottish Fantasy (for violin and orchestra) of Max Bruch. Of course there are lots of other musical fantasies, or fantasias (as I pointed out, we distinguish between the two words in English, but it's a distinction that doesn't exist in the standard "musical" languages -- Italian, French, and German), but it occurred to me at the time that we were missing one obviously important one.

So this week we add to our fantasy roste Schubert's C major Fantasy, D. 760, more familiarly known as the Wanderer Fantasy, for piano solo (at least until Franz Liszt got his hands on it). It's a piece whose rhythmically driven opening, once heard, seems to me unlikely to be forgotten.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
Opening, part 1

Mikhail Rudy, piano. EMI, recorded c1987

But immediately Schubert turns the same material into something very different, and then returns to the original driven mode, and then back, and then . . . .

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
Opening, part 2

Mikhail Rudy, piano. EMI, recorded c1987

As a matter of fact, at the point where we cut off in "part 2," Schubert is in the process of launching a quite melting new rendering of the opening motif; well, we had to cut off somewhere. Not to worry, though -- we'll be hearing the entire opening section of the fantasy soon enough.


And I was frankly surprised to see other writers referring confidently to the Wanderer Fantasy's four "movements." It's not that fantasies can't be written in movements, as we heard so memorably in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. But for me the determining characteristic of the fantasy as a form, to the extent that it is a form, is it succession of contrasting sections, which often introduce new musical material as well as reworking material we've already heard, often culminating in a section that's a veritable thrill ride. I think this would be a fair description of both the Beethoven Choral Fantasy and the Liszt Hungarian Fantasia, and of the Wanderer Fantasy.

I wonder if it's a CD phenomenon, this confident assumption that the four sections of the Wanderer are "movements." After all, on CD that's how the piece comes to us -- each "movement" on its own CD track. Of course in normal CD hearing you wouldn't hear the start of each track, since the Wanderer's four sections are musically continuous. Now that doesn't in itself disqualify them as "movements," since, as we've encountered frequently, composers always reserve the right to join movements musically. We even heard Mendelssohn doing it with all three movements of his much-loved E minor Violin Concerto and his First Piano Concerto.

And even I have to admit that when we listen to the four sections of the Wanderer as separate units, as we'll be doing in a moment, it turns out that they are indeed very movement-like, and even plausibly sonata-like, with an opening Allegro, a theme-and-variations Adagio, a scherzo-ish section in triple meter, and a blazing finale. Clearly Schubert didn't just happen to shape the piece this way. But I've always thought of it as just a happy "coincidence" (wink wink) that the sections of this musical shaggy-dog adventure happen to turn out to be movement-like gems.

I suppose you could dismiss this as a merely semantic issue, but to me it makes for a notably different experience of the piece, undercutting its wonderful "where can this adventure be taking us next?" quality. I throw it out for your consideration as we work our way through the piece. You get to hear it however you like.


As promised, let's hear the whole of the opening section of the Wanderer Fantasy. And we're going to hear two performances that could hardly be more different. It's almost hard to believe that these great pianists are hearing the same piece of music. Beyond differences in temperament between them, it may matter that Leon Fleisher (born 1928) was about 35 when he made his recording, while Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) was 78.

The opening tempo marking is "Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo" -- "Allegro with fire but not too much." We might oversimplify by saying that with Fleisher we hear more the "con fuoco" (though with ample contrast when Schubert asks for it); with Rubinstein, the "ma non troppo."

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
i. Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded in New York City, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1963

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Rome, Apr. 20, 1965

I don't know if this is the place to mention it, but Sony has just released a "complete album collection" for Leon Fleisher, gathering the rich harvest of recordings he made for the Epic label in his blazing (two-handed) younger years as well as his several left-handed recordings and finally, with two hands again, the CD of Mozart concertos he made for Sony. I'm watching the mailbox for my copy.


In the score of the Wanderer Fantasy Schubert actually notes at the start of the second-movement theme-and-variations Adagio as "Der Wanderer," by which he meant that the theme comes from an eight-bar chunk of his song "The Wanderer" (more specifically, the song of that name, D. 493, that's a setting of a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck). In Friday night's preview we heard the full song peformed with memorably intensity by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore and with a less gloomy mien by Bryn Terfel Malcolm Martineau, and I also isolated the eight-bar chunk from the Fischer-Dieskau performance, which we heard alongside the first half or so of the Adagio section of the Wanderer Fantasy.

Again, there are commentators who hear more of the song in more places in the fantasy. I'm not so sure, but maybe it would be helpful to hear the song one more time before proceeding with the Adagio section of the fantasy.

SCHUBERT: "Der Wanderer" ("The Wanderer"), D. 493
Poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck

I come down from the mountains.
The valley streams;
the sea roars.
I wander, silent and joyless,
and my sighs always ask, "Where?"
Always "Where?"

The sun seems so cold to me here,
the flowers faded and life old,
and what they say is empty sound.
I am a stranger everywhere.

Where are you? Where are you, my beloved land?
Sought for, dreamed of, but never known!

The land, the land, so green with hope,
the land where my roses bloom,
where my friends go wandering
where my dead rise up
the land where my language is spoken,
o land, where are you?

I wander, silent and joyless,
and my sighs always ask, "Where?"
Always "Where?"

In a ghostly whisper it calls back to me,
"There where you are not,
there is your joy!"

Gérard Souzay, baritone; Dalton Baldwin, piano. Philips, recorded 1961

The highlighted portion is the eight-bar part of the song that we know Schubert had in mind when he composed the fantasy. Here again is the Fischer-Dieskau performance of it.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano. DG, recorded in Berlin, 1966-68

Now here's the full theme-and-variations movement that Schubert created from it. This time I think we'll start with Rubinstein, for reasons that I hope will be obvious.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
ii. Adagio

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Rome, Apr. 20, 1965

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded in New York City, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1963


Here's the rest of Clifford Curzon's 1949 Decca recording of the Wanderer Fantasy.

Let's bear in mind that Schubert never called this C major Fantasy the Wanderer Fantasy. Still, any musical fantasy is a journey in the imagination, and one thing we can say for sure is that this one isn't the doomed wandering of the singer of Schubert's "Der Wanderer." Beyond that, as a musical fantasy, I think it's left to the listener to work out for him/herself the nature of the adventure, or just hold on for the ride.

As noted, the third section (Presto) certainly has the character of a scherzo, being in triple meter and exhilarating in demeanor and even coming equipped with a more lyrical central section to serve as a trio. To the conversion of the opening theme to triple meter Rubinstein seems to me to bring more than ample vehemence, but the tempo marking is Presto, after all, and Fleisher certainly ratchets it up.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
iii. Presto

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Rome, Apr. 20, 1965

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded in New York City, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1963

As for the final section, recall my earlier note that musical fantasies often build to a climactic thrill ride, which I think describes this finale, which starts by making noises as if it means to be a fugue. Fleisher perhaps gets more thrills, Rubinstein more chills.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
iv. Allegro

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded in New York City, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1963

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Rome, Apr. 20, 1965


Here are two fairly interesting performances.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
i. Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo; ii. Adagio; iii. Presto; iv. Allegro

Gary Graffman, piano. Columbia, recorded c1965

Anton Kuerti, piano. Monitor, recorded c1966


It might be suggested that Schubert's piano writing here is almost orchestral in its scope and power. Perhaps Liszt was thinking "Why settle for 'almost'?" when he decided to turn the Wanderer into a piano-and-orchestra showpiece.

SCHUBERT-LISZT: Wanderer Fantasy
(arr. for piano and orchestra)

Michel Béroff, piano; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. EMI, recorded December 1978

Alfred Brendel, piano; Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, Michael Gielen, cond. Vox, recorded c1963

Clifford Curzon, piano; Queen's Hall Orchestra, Sir Henry Wood, cond. Decca, recorded April 1937

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