I first heard Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A Minor at an A-level recital at Clarendon College, Nottingham around 1992. I was transfixed by the advanced level of playing by Janina Kopinska, viola (daughter of sax player Jan Kopinski and viola player in his band ‘Pinski Zoo’). It was before widespread access to the internet and being too young and perhaps too stoned, the name of the piece escaped me. The music, however stuck in my head as a haunting earworm for the next 27 years.
Intermittently, I began research with little to go on. I didn’t know my Sonata from my Concerto and only had a vague idea that the composer began with ‘Sh’. So trawling through the list of composers for all things viola, I came up with a blank.
Until recently while listening to BBC Radio 3’s ‘Afternoon Concert’. It was July 15th 2019 and live from Wigmore hall, Hungarian cellist, Istvan Vardai, who plays the Stradivari previously owned by Jacqueline Du Pre, drew out the first recognisable, mournful notes of the Sonata.
So, hearing it played on a cello I realised I had had no chance of finding it and even less chance once I found out that the piece was originally written for the now extinct instrument the ‘arpeggione’. Invented in 1823, it was tuned and fretted like a guitar but played between the knees like a cello.
The music itself endured and is still loved to be played by string players today. It was written when Schubert was ill with the syphilis that was soon to kill him and is fragile and beautiful. So it was wonderful to be finally reunited with this emotionally stirring music which I can now listen to whenever I want!