This morning in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), pianist Richard Goode led a Master Class organized in conjunction with a new relationship established between SFCM and Cal Performances. (Goode had given his Cal Performances recital yesterday.) This was a two-hour affair in which only two students were coached, each bringing a major undertaking to the session. This made for quite a lot to absorb for anyone on audience side, so I shall focus my attention to the first half of the class.
This involved the performance of the first movement of Franz Schubert’s D. 959 A major sonata, often identified as the middle of Schubert’s three “late” piano sonatas, assigned consecutive numbers in Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog (958–960) because they were all composed in September of 1828, only months before the composer’s death. Each of these sonatas is distinguished for highly adventurous approaches to harmonic progression, considerable eccentricity in the formation of thematic material, and a prodigious capacity for prolongation leading, particularly, to opening movements of awe-inspiring length (even when the repeat for the exposition is not taken). This movement was given a bold performance (without repeating the exposition) by a student, who had clearly already given some thought to expressiveness, after which Goode got down to business.
One of the most interesting observations to emerge from his discussion of the score itself was just how economical Schubert was in his building blocks. This extensive movement may be a first-rate object lesson in how Schubert could achieve prolongation; but some of the elements that are prolonged could almost be called atomic. Think of how the opening “melodic” material is defined by wide leaps for the left hand shaped by short-long rhythms in the move from downbeat to upbeat. The chordal theme that emerges from that pulse recurs under the first elaborate arpeggio passage, almost as if it were a continuo passage; but the short-long rhythm recurs even more frequently in an impressively diverse number of different guises.
Equally important was Goode’s meticulous attention to dynamic shape. The reader leafing through the pages of the score will be struck by the sparseness of notated dynamics. However, Goode clearly believed that dynamic contours provided the listener with the best means of navigating the extensive length of this movement. Thus, those of us on audience side observed him coaching those contours not only at the level of individual phrases but also as frameworks for larger sections, if not the entire movement.
If these three “late” sonatas are to be taken as a group, then one of the identifying features of the group is that apprehending a sense of the whole is as much a challenge for the serious listener as it is for the performer. Goode’s approach to coaching this movement seemed to indicate that he wanted the student to appreciate how much the listener depends on clarity of vision from the performer for this particular movement. Time was too limited for the audience to listen to how this student could collect her experiences into a second performance of the entire movement. Presumably, however, by the end of the term, she will have prepared all four movements for her recital; and this may well be a recital worth attending for its insights into such a major contribution to the early nineteenth-century repertoire.