It’s getting close now to my concert on Monday 16 Feb at my favourite hall (London’s Wigmore Hall, in case anyone didn’t know) with the marvellous Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth, leader of Quatuor Mosaiques, Concentus Musicus Wien, and an old friend of the Wigmore audience.
Our programme is all-Schubert and includes the magnificent three-movement Fantasie, which is rarely played. Why? Probably because of the level of technical difficulty, which with the advent of the heavier modern piano has acquired an extra layer of challenge. The Fantasy is unusual in that both instruments are treated to equal shares of the virtuosity.
Torrents of notes were all the rage when the work was first performed in Vienna, but nonetheless the 1828 premiere fell a little flat. A critic charmingly admitted, ‘The Fantasy occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece of music…’
Fast forward to my own lifetime, when I had a very different impression on first hearing the Fantasy in the wonderful 1931 recording by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. I found the introduction memorably, spine-chillingly beautiful. The way the violin line emerges from the haze of piano tremolos! The delicacy of both players’ touch! The main allegro passed by in a daze of admiration for the two of them zooming up and down their respective instruments with precision engineering, and suddenly we were into the ‘slow movement’, the set of variations on Schubert’s song ‘Sei mir gegruesst’, combining astonishing filigree work with melodic loveliness.
Then the hushed opening bars of the Fantasy returned, with subtle changes of harmony to mark the passage of time …. and so on. It stuck in my mind as one of Schubert’s finest works, enthralling on several levels simultaneously. I’ve since heard several excellent recordings, (my current favourite is the one by Szymon Goldberg and Radu Lupu) though I don’t think I’ve ever heard it played live, except in performances where I played the piano.
Polishing it for our London performance has taken time. Erich (in Vienna) and I have sent one another enquiries from time to time: ‘How’s it going with the Fantasy?’ ‘What metronome mark are you up to for the last movement?’ It’s exciting to think the concert is now at hand(s).