“The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes. Franz Schubert lies here.”
Thus wrote poet Grillparzer, words that are on the composer’s grave. Beautiful, yes, but hardly fair, I think.
Even fairer hopes? What was Grillparzer expecting? A composer who wrote over 600 songs, piano sonatas, dances and other shorter piano works, other instrumental sonatas, 9 symphonies, endless chamber music, and even a few operas, all these within a life that spanned 31 years. What “fairer hopes” was he hoping for?
What a week it had been! We were privileged to have heard some of the incredible music Schubert wrote within about a year, the final year of his life.
The final concert of the Vancouver Recital Society’s Schubertiade ended last evening with pianist Jonathan Biss and baritone Randall Scarlata. The concert began with the composer’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, arguably one of the most difficult of all the sonatas, technically. Biss’ playing of the first movement reminded me of Rudolf Serkin, that high priest of German classicism. It was not so much a performance that lingered on the poetry of the music, but one that had a keen sense of the music’s architecture. Other than opening chords that felt a little ponderous, Biss acquitted himself admirably in this challenging and problematic movement. I liked very much the lightness with which he played the right hand arpeggios at mm. 7 to 12, and even more so at mm. 22 to 27. He was very successful in bringing out the lyricism of the songful G major (briefly) theme at m. 65.
The highlight of the performance of the sonata was Biss’ playing of the Andantino movement. In that hauntingly beautiful opening theme, Biss played with an infinite variety of colours, sounds and textures. In the left hand, with a staccato eighth note followed by a two eighth-note slur, the artist gave the impression of a sleepwalker roaming through the forest. In the dramatic middle section, Biss successfully brought out the hallucinatory mood of the music. When the theme eventually returns, he plays it almost like a benediction, and beautifully executed the repeated C-sharps in the right hand.
After the intensity of the second movement, I felt that the Scherzo could have had a bit more lightness and playfulness. The trio, (Un poco piu lento), however, was very successfully done. I agreed with his tempo choice in the songful fourth movement. When the theme reappears in its many guises, Biss manages to give it a slightly different character. The many passages of triplet “accompaniment” in both hands were also beautifully played and shaped. He was in complete control throughout this very extended movement. In the coda, where, within the duration of 8 bars, the composer brings back many aspects the entire work, Biss was, for lack of a better word, fantastic.
As much as I admired Biss’ playing of the sonata, I liked him as a lieder partner even more, when he and baritone Randall Scarlata performed Schwanengesang, D. 957, the composer’s final collection of songs. In these final songs, the composer’s creativity and genius in capturing the essence of each poem is simply astounding. I really appreciated the fact that the lid of the piano was fully opened, making the pianist an absolute equal partner in this act of chamber music. Scarlata sang each song like a master storyteller, changing the character and timbre of his voice to suit the character of each song. In Kriegers Ahnung, Scarlata sang the words, “Von Sehnsucht mir so heiss” almost like a sigh. At the end of the lied, with the phrase, “Herzliebste – gute Nacht”, he sang it pleadingly, and charged the words with meaning. Biss played the opening chords of this same lied with a range of colours in the low register of the piano, effectively and immediately setting the mood. In In der Ferne, pianist and singer masterfully navigated through the many moods of the poem. Particularly memorable were Scarlata’s held long note at the words “Wegen nach!” and the dramatic crescendo to the end with the word “ziehenden”.
I adored the artists’ utterly charming interpretation of the utterly charming Abschied. Biss was particularly effective in his playing of the prancing hoof-steps of the horse. The decrescendo towards the end of the song was particularly evocative in conveying the image of the poet travelling farther and farther away from his origin. Scarlata’s declamatory tone perfectly suited the character of Atlas. I enjoyed Biss’ simplicity in his playing of the folk-like Das Fischermädchen, the solemnity of the opening chords in Am Meer, and the ghostly arpeggios in Die Stadt.
In Der Doppelgänger, Scarlata’s voice took on a dark hue, which effectively highlighted the frightening intensity and desperation of this, one of the composer’s darkness and scariest lieder. Pianist and singer ended the evening’s music with a congenial performance of Die Taubenpost, done with just the right amount of gemütlichkeit.
Franz Schubert was not of this earth. Like Mozart, Schubert was given to us by God, for a short time, to grace us with and to remind us of the beauty of His creation. Like the lives of Schubert and Mozart, this week’s concerts were over far too quickly. But unlike Grillparzer, let us be grateful for what had been given to us by the composer, and by this group of talented artists that graced us with their gifts these past few days.
With music such as what we had heard this week, the world didn’t seem like such a terrible place after all.