Few pieces in the piano repertoire have had a fate similar to that of Franz Schubert’s “Impromptus” op. 90 (D899) and op. 142 (D935). Just two of them were published during the composer’s short lifetime; even their title and concept are disputed, and are still the object of musical and musicological controversy nearly two centuries after their composition; few other pieces have been both loved and massacred by countless amateurs, and have represented a continuing challenge for the greatest piano soloists worldwide. Indeed, Franz Schubert was certainly a pianist, but by no means a soloist. While most composers of his time were (possibly first and foremost) piano virtuosos (more rarely they could have achieved fame as virtuoso players of other instruments), he did play most of his own works, but in the more intimate setting of a circle of friends, who could appreciate and love the particular beauty of his music. His piano works were frequently difficult, but almost never showy; the piano was for him more akin to a spiritual journal than to a battlehorse. His works required attention, patience and a disposition to introspection from both listeners and players, and many were simply not interested in a music which demanded such an engagement and promised the applause of connoisseurs only. Schubert was a master both of the shortest forms, such as the “Lieder” (and this was acknowledged by most of his contemporaries), and of the large-scale pieces, such as the Symphonies, Quartets, Piano Sonatas and chamber music (and this was only gradually recognized by critics, audiences and performers). The eight Impromptus, it can be said, are perfect examples of both. They can be played individually, and each constitutes a relatively short musical unity which frequently reaches the complexity and consistency of a microcosm; they can be played by groups of four each, and thus both collections become great musical journeys which (at least in the case of op. 142) acquire a Sonata-like coherence; they can be played in their entirety and constitute one of the masterpieces of all piano literature. All three versions can find a justification in the pieces’ history: while the eight of them were written at roughly the same time in 1827, the year before the composer’s death, they were published individually and at various times (op. 90 no. 3 was even transposed to G major with his 4/2 bars halved); the Impromptus op. 142 were numbered 5-8 by the composer in the autograph manuscript, thus suggesting that he intended the eight pieces as constituting a series; but, at the same time, and particularly in the case of op. 142, each set of four has a personality of its own. Indeed, Robert Schumann was the first to argue that op. 142 may have been conceived as a Piano Sonata, and that the division of its unity into shorter pieces had been dictated merely by commercial reasons. Oddly enough, however, while Schumann proposed to play the opus in its entirety and as a Sonata, he also advised to omit the third Impromptu, which he criticized harshly. Whether the cycle was in fact a Sonata in disguise or not is a matter still open to debate: there are musical reasons for sustaining this view and musicological/historical reasons for undermining it. While we will probably never possess conclusive evidence for either option, it is undeniably perfectly justified, both musically and historically, to conceive the sets (of four and/or eight) as a majestic and fascinating fresco. Taken as a whole, the eight pieces offer abundant examples of all of Schubert’s most typical and admired traits: the predilection for singing (a singing of a restrained and intimate quality, with clearly articulated “words” and “phrases” and memorable tunes), the presence of many rhythms of dance and of elements from the folkloric traditions of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the fascination for the “journey” as an existential dimension rather than as an instrument for getting to a musical destination, the all-pervading nostalgia which inhabits not just the melancholic pieces, but also the lively and ironic ones. The first Impromptu, the first opus and the entire cycle open on a double octave, which resonates like a call demanding immediate and full attention, and raises the curtain. The stage, however, reveals something totally different from a theatrical scene: though it is by no means uneventful, the entire first Impromptu is built on a very simple theme with a dotted rhythm which suggests both the idea of marching and of speaking. Schubert masterfully plays with this potential by transforming it into a more developed song, into a dramatic opposition of musical principles, and into an alternation of stasis and movement. Little of this can be guessed at the beginning, however: the theme’s sheer simplicity and the hypnotic repetitions of its first appearances look as unpromising (and yet as fascinatingly mysterious) as a tiny kernel, whose potential for development is carefully hidden. The second Impromptu of op. 90 is in turn construed very tightly, though here there is no question of stasis (unless one wishes to consider an unrelenting movement as a particular case of stasis). Written in the ABA form, with a Coda built on material from its B section, this Impromptu demonstrates Schubert’s ability in making everything sing, even the most trivial of all musical elements, the scale. The brilliance of the right hand’s strings of pearls should not hide, however, the contribution of the left hand, whose rhythm in triple time has a strong, lopsided accent on the second beat. This rhythm will reappear very often throughout the cycle, and is given further emphasis in the B section and coda of this impromptus, where the scales’ smooth spirals are reversed into an almost barbaric harshness. Franz Liszt wrote an even more virtuosic elaboration of this piece, underpinning its very “pianistic” quality – a trait which frequently is missing in many of Schubert’s piano works. Also the following piece, no. 3, attracted Liszt’s attention, and he enriched the texture of Schubert’s original; it should be said, however, that the best of the two versions is undoubtedly Schubert’s. Here the piano is turned into a voice/piano duet, similar to those of his countless “Lieder”: it is almost a musical “trompe-l’oeil”, since the illusion of sung “words” is created through the recurring un-pianistic repetition of the same note in the splendid melody, whose shadowy quality is enhanced by the use of the unusual key of G-flat major. The last Impromptu of op. 90 is another example of the ABA form and of a ternary rhythm with the emphasis on the second beat. Indeed, it can be argued that, in the opening phrase, and while the right hand plays a garland of arpeggios, the left hand almost inflates the second beat transforming the harmony of a single bar into two bars, nearly suspending time on the chord. Although the piece is in A-flat major, the key is revealed only after a rather long harmonic itinerary in which arpeggios and chords alternate with each other, and only when the usual two bars of chords are expanded into a beautiful phrase. The first true theme is then played by the left hand, always under the right hand’s mellow arpeggios: here too the melodic emphasis is on the second beat. The B-section is once more similar to a “Lied”, and it is a doleful, passionate, and yet extremely personal plea which occasionally rises to the highest notes of Schubert’s piano and then is given an enchanting light through the transition to the major mode.
The first of the Impromptus op. 142 is in F minor, and, similar to what happened to its homologue in the preceding set, it begins with a solemn and powerful musical gesture; moreover, and with a further reference to op. 90 n. 1, here too the dotted rhythm features prominently in the first theme, whose assertive and vigorous character is purposefully juxtaposed to its opposite, the exquisitely tender second theme. Indeed, whereas the first theme affirmed itself in the most unequivocal fashion, the second enters almost in hiding or disguise, and its shape is merely guessed, at first, under the right hand’s gentle semiquavers. A similar movement of semiquavers is found in the third section, where the right hand proposes an infinite circular motion of arpeggios, while the left hand interprets both voices of a touching and intense duet. The endless repetition of the arpeggio motif seems to suggest other famous circular motions found in Schubert’s “Lieder”, such as Gretchen’s spinning wheel, the watermill or the hurdy-gurdy. Indeed, this Impromptu (the longest and most complex of the set) closes on a third repetition of its opening gesture: this compositional choice (frequently found in Schubert) could allude to the inescapable doom of Time, in an almost Nietzschean anticipation of the eternal return. Against the dark worldview of the first Impromptu, the second offers a ray of hope. Though its triple time (once more focused on the second beat) alludes to a graceful and gentle dance, its chordal writing is a clear reference to a Chorale-like texture: it is almost if love, in all of its forms (human and divine, physical and spiritual) could be embodied in a single piece. Its theme is one of Schubert’s unforgettable melodies, with its blend of tenderness, nostalgia and aspiration to the infinite. Notwithstanding Schumann’s opinion, the theme of the third Impromptu is both beautiful in se and perfectly crafted as the generating principle of a set of Variations. This theme had already been employed by Schubert in other works (such as “Rosamunde”), and is transformed into ironic, joyful and brilliant variations, though – at the piece’s heart – the variation in the minor mode has the sound and mood of a funeral march. The return of the key of F minor in the fourth Impromptu is one of the elements underpinning the unity of op. 142. This brilliant movement, with evident influences from the Hungarian and gypsy musical traditions, is a further demonstration of how Schubert can transform a series of scale into an ever-changing and multi-coloured itinerary. Indeed, if the “Wanderer” is the protagonist of several eponymous “Lieder”, of the Fantasy built on one of them, and of entire song cycles (such as “Winterreise”), it can be argued that his silhouette can be recognized behind a substantial portion of Schubert’s music: through these Impromptus, which are a pilgrimage in themselves, we are led not only to admire a variety of subtly differentiated musical landscapes, but also to enjoy the journey for its own sake. The icon of the wanderer is a clear symbol for a spiritual quest, for the unending search for the meaning of life and the infinite which inspires the human itinerary. This dimension is clearly observed in Sebastiano Brusco’s interpretation, which explicitly aims at communicating the spirituality of music rather than pursuing what is merely spectacular. The interpreter’s rigour, his constant search of authenticity and originality and his capability to transcend the dogmas of modernism after having digested its principles endow his interpretation with a refreshing novelty, which sheds new light on these beloved and well-known masterpieces.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Sebastiano Brusco is an eclectic pianist and a sophisticated interpreter, who can also compose and improvise. He studied with famous pianists coming from prestigious schools, and formed his personality through a non-academic research of his own stylistic aesthetics, never accepting compromises. What can be appreciated in his interpretations is above all a sincere way of playing, which has the purpose of reaching the music's communicability.
Born in Rome, he discovered his passion for music very young. After having recovered from a serious illness, he resolved to devote himself to musical studies, graduating with a rst class degree from the Conservatory “F. Morlacchi” in Perugia studying with Valentino Di Bella. He attended various courses with Lya de Barberiss, D. de Rosa, K. Labeque, P. Cassard, J. Achucarro (Accademia Chigiana of Siena), and with the Duo Moreno-Capelli. Of great importance to his formation were his studies with Ennio Pastorino, (former student of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli), with whom he received a diploma of excellence from the Accademia Musicale Umbra, as well as his studies Aldo Ciccolini at his own Academy. As a soloist, he has performed with important Italian and foreign orchestras: Solisti Veneti, Verdi's Orchestra of Milan, Transylvania National Orchestra, Tirana's Orchestra, Simphonic Orchestra of Pesaro. He has worked with conductors such as R. Chailly, R. Hickox, F. Totan, and V. Antonellini. In Italy, Sebastiano has played as a soloist or in chamber music formation in notable theatres and auditoriums and in important musical seasons and festivals. His debut at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto in 2005 was broadcast in Worldvision. He has given concerts in Canada, United States (Washington and New York University), Emirates, Mexico (Monterrey). In Europe he has played in Spain (Barcellona, Madrid), France (Paris), Switzerland (Zurigo) in the prestigious seat of the Zürcher Kammerorchester where he inaugurated the new auditorium. Other concerts
abroad include the rst national performance of Poulenc’s concerto for two pianos and orchestra in Cluj, Romania, Poland (Chopin's Museum, Warsaw), Germany (Schumann Haus, Bonn), Belgium. He played at the Grieg Festival in Bergen (Norway), gave recitals for the Dark Music Days Festival in Reykjavik and other festivals in Iceland where he is invited every year.
Brusco was a guest artist in Turkey in 2011 for a recital for the 150th anniversary of the death of Sultan Abdülmecid. In 2019 he made a wide concert tour in China performing Hong Kong, Pechino, Shanghai, Nanjing, Huangshan, Kunshan and Hangzhou. He played several times with the Russian violinist Vadim Brodksy and in other chamber formations. Brusco recorded a CD for the label Phoenix with pianist Marco Scolastra.
Sebastiano composed the theme song and other music for the animated series “Hocus & Lotus” which was broadcast for three years on RAI 3 and translated into more than ten languages around the world, winning 1st prize for “Best Soundtrack” at the Derivio Cartoon Festival in 2005.
He also composed and played the soundtrack of the Movie “WAX” (2016), an Italian-French Warner Bros coproduction. Sebastiano has won many national and international competitions, among which 1st prize at the Carlo Soliva International Competition (1998), finalist at the International Competition of Musical Execution “Provincia di Caltanissetta” (member of the Federazione Mondiale dei Concorsi Internazionali di Musica di Ginevra), as well as 1st prize at the Gubbio Festival International Competition and numerous others.
Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.