Between 1824 and 1828, Franz Schubert was subject to a health rollercoaster that would ultimately lead to fatal consequences. His spirits in those years swung from self-defeat (‘Picture yourself, I say, someone whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing’, he would write to Leopold Kupelwieser in March 1824) to a renewed sense of recovering optimism (‘My good health continues, thank God’ he wrote to Moritz von Schwind the same year). He was at times encouraged by the reception of some of his music (‘I have come across my compositions all over Upper Austria, but especially in the monasteries at St. Florian and at Kremsmünster, where, assisted by an excellent pianist, I gave a very successful recital of my Variations and Marches for four hands’) to suspicious insecurity about the perceptions it triggered (to Schwind again, from his stay in Zseliz in 1824: ‘I have composed a big sonata and variations for four hands, and the latter have met with a specially good reception here, but I do not entirely trust Hungarian taste, and I shall leave it to you and to the Viennese to decide their true merit’). 

Bearing in mind Schubert’s physical weakness, we can only look at his musical output between these last four years of life with wondrous admiration. He fed on his inner unrest and, in seeing death looming, he hung onto life by producing a prodigious amount of music. To name but a few, works in this period include the last three complete quartets, seven piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Octet and of course Winterreise, the 13 posthumous songs that came to be known as Schwanengesang and countless other songs.

The entirety of this evening’s programme was framed within these last four gloriously productive years.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve
In writing for piano, Schubert turned part of his attention to composing for four hands. Two very different but like-minded musicians, Andreas Staier and Alexander Melnikov, sat down together and offered a careful selection of these pieces. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less: two musicians indulging in a Schubert feast of often outstanding quality.

The first part of the concert had Staier on the lower register and Melnikov on the higher one. The March in B minor, D.819, number three of a series of six, broke the silence and kicked off that pulsating torrent that lies beneath all of the Viennese genius’s music. It did not stop since. Whether in the regal manner of the Polonaise in D minor, D.824 – the first out of six that share the same catalogue number – in the sunny, dance-inducing, cunningly rhythmical Ländler, D.814, or in the lengthier, forward-driving Rondo in A major, the German and the Russian made the best of a clearly fruitful collaboration. It is no minor project to partner up, as they have been doing across Europe, to play Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, with Staier at the harpsichord, alongside Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, with Melnikov at the piano. Sharing a keyboard evidently suits them just as well. Staier built colossally solid groundings over which Melnikov sang. They breathed together, evolved together, gave each other wings. It is such a pleasure watching music being made through teamwork, even in – particularly in – the smallest of teams.

Andreas Staier © Josep Molina
Andreas Staier
© Josep Molina
After the interval, the time came to swap roles. Melnikov took care of the lower register – and the pedal – while Staier marvelled the audience. ‘Several people assured me that under my fingers the keys were transformed into singing voices’ would write Schubert. Pretty much the same thing could be applied to Staier. The immediacy the music took on under his melodies brought the second half of the concert to a different dimension – after, let’s not forget, a notable first half. The Eight Variations on an original theme in A flat major, D.813 is a good case in point, ranging from the initial martial theme through to the seventh, unspeakably longing seventh variation. Staier might as well have sung simultaneously, or instead of playing, such was his understanding and interpretation of those lines, behind which there is always a wordless Lied. The haunting opening theme in the Fantasy in F minor, D.940, with its pounding appoggiatura that stubbornly delays the perfect fourth interval that follows, defied any description. The theme reappears throughout the piece in different forms and tonalities, and on each occasion Staier seemed to appeal to our own sense of impermanence. We may want to go back to something we know, yet it is never the same. We are increasingly surrounded by spectres of our own existence that come back to us as unresolved echoes in major and minor tones. In Schubert though, that impermanence never quite imposes itself entirely, not even after the music has ended.