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

Byron Schenkman & Friends Explore Handel’s Italian Cantatas

Sunday evening’s Byron Schenkman & Friends program looks delicious: focusing on two early cantatas by Handel (including Vedendo Amor from his sojourn in Rome), it also includes some of his instrumental music plus pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, and Anna Bon.
For some background, here’s my piece in this month’s Juilliard Journal on Handel in Rome (on p. 16).

Complete program:

George Frideric Handel:
Sonata in G Major, op. 1, no. 5, for flute and continuo

Domenico Scarlatti:
Four keyboard sonatas, K. 238, K. 239, K. 99, K. 100

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Vedendo Amor” for voice and continuo

Antonio Caldara:
Cantata “Soffri, mio caro Alcino” for voice and continuo

Anna Bon:
Sonata in F Major, op. 1, no. 2, for flute and continuo

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Mi palpita il cor” for voice, flute, and continuo

Performers:
Reginald Mobley

COUNTERTENOR
Joshua Romatowski

FLUTE
Nathan Whittaker

CELLO
Byron Schenkman

HARPSICHORD

Concert starts 7pm on Sunday 18 November at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall.
Tickets here.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Handel, Juilliard

Byron Schenkman & Friends Present the Poetry of Schumann

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Byron Schenkman (Will Austin/Will Austin Photography)

For Robert Schumann, the Romantic concept of poetry was the common denominator that inspired him to compose across a wide range of genres…

continue reading

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Schumann, Seattle Times

Bach & the Mendelssohns: A Consideration by Byron Schenkman & Friends

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I was fortunate to be able to catch the season-opening program of Byron Schenkman & Friends — already in their 4th season! — at the end of an unusually packed weekend.

What a pleasurable way to regain focus: here was an intelligently programmed and charmingly presented concert that mixed masterworks with some fascinating novelties.

Most of all, it was filled with terrific music-making by colleagues whose enjoyment and passion drew the audience in. There’s always a feeling at a Byron Schenkman & Friends performance that it’s not merely about “presenting” a pre-packaged menu: it’s about sharing that experience as intimately as possible, drawing on the energy and involvement of the listeners — basically, in other words, the chamber music ideal.

Schenkman built his program around the ties that bind J.S. Bach and the Mendelssohn family — not only Felix, whose advocacy of the Thomas Cantor through his landmark revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 is a famous  landmark of Bach reception, but older sister Fanny as well.

Schenkman pointed out that Fanny helped to prepare that performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and her reverence for Bach informed her own musical composition. While still in her cradle, he remarked, Fanny was lovingly described in a letter as wiggling what her prescient mother sensed were destined to be “Bach-fugue-playing fingers.”

The first half of the program was framed with tasteful accounts of Bach works as they may have been revived at a salon gathering chez Mendelssohn (say, while the siblings were growing up, or later, at Felix’s beautiful home in Leipzig).

With Schenkman at the keyboard (the Steinway typically used by Seattle Chamber Music Society for programs in Nordstrom Recital Hall, where the concert was held), Seattle Symphony principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi played an arrangement for her instrument of the G major Sonata BWV 1027 that was redolent with color and expressivity.

Later came a version of the Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) for piano and string quartet (with Gulkis Assadi joined by violinists Ingrid Matthews and Liza Zurlinden and cellist Geoffrey Dean), its haunting middle-movement melody — familiar from recycling elsewhere in Bach’s work — an especially effective foil to the restless turbulence surrounding it.

Schenkman eloquently introduced the work of Fanny Mendelssohn, describing her social position as a woman in an assimilated Jewish family in Biedermeier-era Germany — and the constraints to pursuing a composing career this entailed.

And the sense of palpable loss came through most unmistakably in the two selections of her work that were programmed: a Fantasy in G minor for cello and piano, with its genuinely memorable melodic pathos (Schenkman here joined by Dean), and one of her wordless Songs for the Piano, “Il Saltarello romano” (Op. 6, no. 4), one of the few pieces she managed to publish in her name.

But several pieces, according to Schenkman, she was able to publish only under her brother’s name. He referred to Felix’s well-known friendship with Queen Victoria, who once asked him to play her favorite number from his Songs without Words — whereupon he reportedly confessed that it was actually not his, but the work of his sister.

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Mendelssohn’s study in Leipzig

The second half of the program offered a particularly rousing account of a late-period masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn — and one of the highlights of the 19th-century literature — the C minor Piano Trio, Op. 66. It’s the last chamber piece the composer managed to have published with his approval (in 1846) before his untimely death in 1847– less than a half-year after the devastating loss of his beloved Fanny.

Zurlinden, Dean, and Schenkman together homed in on the Romantic passions and extremes of this marvelous score — the opening shared something of the atmospheric suspense of the much earlier Hebrides Overture — allowing the consoling second theme to expand and blossom at leisure.

I also admired the refinement of tonal balances between the strings and Schenkman’s piano textures. The Bach connection came through with noble effect in the finale, with the emergence of the quasi-chorale — beautifully shaped by the players — against an agitated backdrop (an idea Brahms would later take up in his Third Piano Quartet).

Next up — Music for the Sun King — is a program devoted to one of Schenkman’s special loves: the French Baroque.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Mendelssohn, review

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