NOVA Chamber Series: Schubert @ Libby Gardner 03.11

Posted March 15, 2012 in
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Sunday’s second annual Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) concert presented a few of the later compositions of this romantic giant. Hugely prolific during his lifetime, he died at thirty-one. Typhus (officially his demise) probably didn't kill him, but more likely he was killed by the cure. His symptoms fit more closely with syphilis, and the 19th century cure was a dose of mercury—which often led to mercury poisoning. Although he ailed for some time, and suspected he was dying, he composed furiously until his last days, and in the end his death was abrupt and unexpected. This show featured pieces specifically from his last few years, including Shepherd on the Rock, which was probably composed in his last month.

In his lifetime Schubert was not famous or commercially successful. At one point he studied composition with Antonio Salieri—the bad guy from the film “Amadeus,” who in real life was a Viennese musical powerhouse—and teaching piano to the children of the rich afforded him time to write at a tireless pace. He got up in the morning and composed, and when he finished one work he started the next. At his death, he had written 600 lyric songs, or lieder, and nine symphonies. Of seventeen operas or operettas that he composed, only two were performed, and none were successful. Today, his many works of chamber music, and music for solo piano or piano with four hands are constant staples of the concert hall (and of my iPod). He was a big deal, to his friends—but only after he was dead did his work become the universally acknowledged treasure it is.

The spirit of Schubert might be one-hundred-eighty-six years gone and fifty-five-hundred miles away, but it was recreated once again by living hands and shared by a smallish but enthusiastic audience on Sunday.

I love Schubert, I’ll be right up front about it. Some of my favorite recordings are Schubert Piano Sonatas played by Sviatoslav Richter (Glenn Gould felt the same way about Richter's Schubert). Schubert's chamber music is widely loved; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's poll of chamber music listeners rated Schubert compositions as the three most popular chamber music pieces in their survey of the Chamber Music Best Loved 100.

Seated together at a great black Steinway Grand Piano and playing a children's march for four hands, husband and wife Jason Hardink and Kimi Kawishima gave this elementary exercise color and mournfulness as the piece transformed from a jaunty little march to a melancholy procession with some genuinely sad and poigniant moments This little march was followed by a Fugue, a technical study Schubert wrote just weeks before he died. An autodidact, Schubert was learning counterpoint at the end—he understood his own composition was simple in some respects. But his able experimentation and sublime sense of melody are clear enough. This fugue raised the question in my mind: how does one write a fugue and not sound like Bach? Well, Schubert starts off fairly conventionally, but ends sounding the discord of a romantic heart in the world. Which never appears in Bach. Bach's discord is understood, and expected. Schubert manages to muddy the waters of fugue logic with romantic scepticism. This informative programming, like seeing a color wheel in an artist’s hand, is of interest mostly to specialists. But this is a specialist concert, so I appreciated it.

The Duo in A Minor is a single lovely movement, unpublished during his lifetime, performed here crisply, but also with feeling. Following the smallish march and structural fugue, which were played as though movements in one three part sonata, it was as though we were shown the bow, and then the violin, and now we were hearing the music. It was a smart introduction to the subject of today's concert.

Schubert is known for his lieder. He did as much to change lieder as any classical composer. His songs are dramatic, the music and lyric being in confluence, rather than the tune following the structure of lyric as rhyme and rhythm. His influence is in Mahler at the end of the nineteenth century and even later in Richard Strauss in the middle of the twentieth century.

Soprano Celena Schafer is rightfully world famous, in demand on concert stages all over the world, a native Utahn and resident. Called "brilliant" by the New York Times, she has appeared in many of the best operas and with the best opera conductors. Her rendition of The Shepard On The Rock, which is thought to be the last song Schubert finished, was simply sublime. Accompanied by Lee Livengood on clarinet and Jason Hardink, it was a lesson on why I shouldn't fear lieder. Yes, sometimes I don't look forward to the singing part of classical music, but this song, and this singer were jaw dropping. Her German accent sounded true, and her tone was an eagle hovering on wind over a lake: completely powerful, rare, and glowingly effortless. The tone of Mr. Livengood's clarinet was similarly glowing, luminescent even. The song itself plays a little quaintly, jumping from emotion to emotion on the turn of a phrase, but the music and performance were moving and finally ecstatic.

The second half of the concert featured the Piano Trio in B-flat Major D. 898. A staple of the concert stage, it was nonetheless the first time I had heard it live. Featuring Stephanie Cathcart on violin, Noriko Kishi on cello, and Mr. Hardink on piano; in listening there was a magical quality; like going to a childhood home again, everything not quite remembered, and then, slowly the details appear, a familiar thing experienced as if for the first time. The sister of the much featured Trio in E-flat which appears in the films “The Hunger” and “Barry Lyndon,” somehow this trio has escaped similar cinematic notice, although it is every bit as moving.

The B-flat major trio was written in 1827 and finished the next year, the composer’s last. But it was not published until nine years later as Opus 99. It is the only one of the major chamber works to have no surviving manuscript in Schubert’s hand. Like much of the music of Schubert, it is haunted by death. Full of moments of dark contemplation, it is, like its sister trio the E-flat and the final piece of chamber music he wrote (the Quintet in C), a portrait of fear, despair, and acceptance of death. Some hear a hope for resurrection in these pieces, as in an earlier death piece, the Quartet 14 in D minor (Death and The Maiden), I hear a mind vexed by coming nothingness in the trio’s energetic passages and despairing asides. I hear horror and stillness.

At the end, Schubert was composing at a full gallop, continually experimenting and growing. As his death approached, his darker compositions increasingly capture feelings of sadness and of gratitude with a depth of feeling more nearly a force of nature than the composition of a living person. I look forward to next year’s continuation of this tradition, and I hope it is as grand as today’s show proved to be.

Photos: Photo © Mikel Covey