Wednesday, April 13, 2016

First Schubertiade Evening

What a treat this week will be, to have some of my favourite pieces of music performed within the space of four days! The Vancouver Recital Society’s inspired Schubertiade, featuring the composer’s late works of Franz Schubert, began last night.

And what a start it was! I was particularly anxious to hear pianist Kuok-Wai Lio, who gave a remarkable recital on the Playhouse stage a few seasons back. Mr. Lio did not disappoint last evening. In fact, I believe that he has matured even more artistically since we last heard him. He began the concert with one of Schubert’s most dramatic, most Beethovenian work, the Sonata in C minor, D. 958. There were many magical moments in Lio’s playing of the work, but more than many artists, he really highlighted for me the kinship of Schubert’s instrumental works to his lieder. The spiritual and emotional world of this sonata is really that of Winterreise.

The artist navigated us through the many harmonic changes of the 1st movement with great mastery, making them moving musical moments, as in the transition into E-flat major beginning at m. 27. In those mere two-dozen measures, the composer took us from the desperation of the opening chords to hope, and Lio really highlighted for me that magical transformation. The many pregnant pauses, especially in the first and second movements, were charged with meaning. Also remarkable was how he played the development of the opening movement, bringing out the absolute bleakness of the chromatic line in the left hand, and the restless broken chords in the right. The writing in this section is very much like the piano writing in Erstarrung, the fourth song from Winterreise.

In the second movement, marked Adagio, Schubert, through Lio, brought us into the emotional world of Das Wirtshaus, again from Winterreise. And again, the pianist acted as knowledgeable guide, taking us through the dramatic middle section before bringing us home (briefly) to the wistful opening theme. It was a remarkable journey. In the 4th movement, I was reminded of Schubert’s early masterpiece Erlk├Ânig. As in that earlier song, this movement is once again a wild ride through the forest. In the sudden appearance of the theme in C major at m. 67, Lio’s playing reminded me of the voice of the Erl-king, luring the child into his kingdom of death with his suave words.

Almost as a bit of an emotional relief, the next piece on the programme was the Fantasie in C major for violin and piano, D. 934, the composer’s attempt at virtuoso writing for the two instruments. If this work does not have the same emotional impact as the sonata, it is still a remarkable composition. The incredible collaboration between Lio and violinist Benjamin Beilman was stunning The two artists were together in every nuance of the piece. Although the violin part is slightly flashier, the piano part is much, much more than mere accompaniment. Both Lio and Beilman were at one from beginning to end, and it was a truly satisfying chamber music performance.

I had been really looking forward to the performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956. The performers in this concert were the Doric String Quartet and cellist Gary Hoffman. I believe that in this incredible work, Schubert had already “crossed over” to the other side, and was staring at death in the eye. The performers last night were certainly in sync with the composer from the first note to last. The pacing in all four movements was impeccable. In the first and second movements, the hushed quality of the true pianissimos as well as the many moments of portentous silence were breathtaking. In the second movement - the emotional core of the entire work, the performers created the feeling that the music is only hanging by a thread, and found it difficult even to breathe, lest I break the magic of the moment. The explosion of sound in the third movement, and the almost wild dance of the fourth, although no less incredible musically, serve almost as a catharsis after the almost unbearable emotional intensity of the first two movements.

At a time when the recital season is winding to a close, we are so fortunate to have this mini-chamber music festival. I am certainly looking forward to the continuation of the musical journey in the next two concerts.

Patrick May
April 13, 2o16

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