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For the most part, the Sonata in A major, D. 959, is representative of late Schubert (1797-1828). It is dramatic, certainly; bucolic at times, definitely. But in its second movement, there is an episode of dread so implacable that one wonders how the music and the listener can even proceed.

Written in Schubert’s last year of life, a time haunted by illness and periods of poverty, the A-major Sonata seems to invite a biographical interpretation. But there is always a danger, apprehending the work of great artists, when we follow that path. Inevitably we hear the proximity of death in the second movement, but how can we explain the appearances of what seem to be uncomplicated happiness elsewhere in the Sonata, given the fraught months of its composition? 

The Andantino has no equal in the sonata literature. Beginning as a dour, melancholy barcarolle, the movement continues with nothing less than a look into the abyss. Nowhere else do we hear music which seems so uncoupled from what came before, a deranged breakdown of sorts, played out as we listen, unforgiving and tragic. But Schubert pulls us back from this terror with the brief glow of a hopeful major key. Recovery is by necessity gradual and the movement ends as somberly as it began. And where Beethoven might seek a heroic almost celestial resolution of turmoil, Schubert’s healing remains humanely and gratefully earthbound.