MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Schubert and Britten et al. from Byron Schenkman & Friends

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Byron Schenkman, Jeff Fair, and Zach Finkelstein

Still basking in the emotions from Sunday evening’s program courtesy of Byron Schenkman & Friends – said friends on this occasion being tenor Zach Finkelstein (in his Nordstrom Recital Hall debut), Seattle Symphony principal horn player Jeff Fair, and cellist Nathan Whittaker.

Schenkman’s programming is always an art in itself, but this one really stood out for its combination of poetry and music, focusing on a pair of composers who rank among the most sensitive writers for the voice. Schubert lieder framed the evening, with a set of four songs to begin — “Der Musensohn,” “An die Laute,” “Ganymed,” and “Du bist die Ruh” — and “Auf dem Strom,” one of the miraculous products of his final year, at the close.

Finkelstein’s refined, expressive phrasing and gorgeous tone hit the mark. The tenor was alert to every nuance Schubert uses to paint the emotions evoked by the poet, adding just enough pressure and urgency to make an apparently simple melodic turn suddenly light up with hidden colors. (See the video below for more on this wonderful singer, including some of his insights on Britten.)

“Auf dem Strom” — thought to be possible a tribute to the late Beethoven, who had died the year before — came off as a thoroughly involving miniature drama. I also admired Schenkman’s affinity for this repertoire, which shows off a very different side of his artistry from the early music fare I more frequently hear him perform. Jeff Fair emphasized the touching mellifluousness of the horn part, with hints of nostalgic heroism as well.

Schenkman, Finkelstein, and Fair all have collaborated on a to-die-for recording of all five of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, which came in 2017. Before performing the two Canticles featured on this program, Schenkman and Finkelstein read the long, intricate poems which Britten set to music: Canticle I, Op. 40 (“My Beloved Is Mine”) by Francis Quarles, composed in 1947 for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears; and 54 the 19Canticle III, Op. 55 (“Still falls the rain: The raids 1940. Night and dawn”), to a poem by Edith Sitwell, which calls for a solo horn part in addition to the piano accompaniment.

These two highly contrasting pieces — the one a mystical ode to love, the other an unsparing reflection on human nature’s darkest side, while still reaching for hope — made for a powerful juxtaposition. Canticle III is of Turn of the Screw vintage and felt both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.

When introducing the first Canticle, Schenkman pointed out the composer’s bravery in living with a same-sex partner during a period when Alan Turing was subjected to such injustice, recalling, too, how Queen Elizabeth sent a personal letter of condolence to Pears following his companion’s death in 1976. Schenkman also referred to Britten’s role in reaffirming the stature of Mendelssohn following the Nazis’ attempt to erase him from history, noting how Mendelssohn himself played a pivotal role in rescuing nearly lost Schubert masterpieces from oblivion.

Schenkman and Nathan Whittaker gave a glowing account of Mendelssohn’s Variations concertantes for cello and piano, Op. 17, after the first Canticle. The cellist also treated listeners to the solo piece The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav Holst and a close friend of Britten and Pears). Written in 1963 for Pamela Hind o’Malley, it comprises “short studies … on a 16th-century tune” from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (by Martin Peerson). More eloquent, even grief-stricken, than restrained, Whittaker brought out the thoughtful melancholy of the descending, fatalistic theme, while playfully suggesting the ghost of a lute in Holst’s pizzicato chords.

Filed under: Britten, Byron Schenkman, review, Schubert

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