MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Schubert and Britten et al. from Byron Schenkman & Friends


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

Simone Dinnerstein: Glass + Schubert


Sorry not to be in town to be able to attend Simone Dinnerstein’s program tonight at Miller Theatre. She talks about her thinking behind this pairing of Glass and Schubert in my essay for the program:

Affinities and Alliances: Simone Dinnerstein Performs Glass + Schubert

By happy coincidence, this month ends with a double birthday: January 31 is the day on which Philip Glass and Franz Schubert were born. And while, chronologically speaking, 140 years separate the two composers, the affinities between them are striking. Glass grew up surrounded by classical music in heavy rotation in his father’s record store in Baltimore and found himself drawn to Schubert in particular.
continue reading

Filed under: Philip Glass, piano, Schubert, Simone Dinnerstein

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Byron Schenkman & Friends

byronMy preview of the final Byron Schenkman & Friends concert of the season has now been posted by The Seattle Times:

When great artists are struggling, that pain sometimes comes through in their work — but not always. Take Beethoven and Schubert, who produced some of their loftiest music during periods of intense suffering.

continue reading

Filed under: Beethoven, preview, Schubert, Seattle Times

Collapsing Borders and Boundaries


Kid Koala - Nufonia Must Fall - Noorderzon_Festival_2014_@_Groningen_NL_ Jørn-Mulder-93

My preview of two upcoming events at Stanford Live has now been psoted:

The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.

continue reading

Filed under: new music, preview, Schubert

The Miró Quartet’s “Transcendent” Project

miro1.jpgTo celebrate its 20th anniversary year, the Miró Quartet has been pursuing some characteristically innovative and ambitious projects. This week the group announced the winner of its Transcendence Education Project: the Fox Chapel Area High School Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Entrants had been invited to submit a 30-second video on the topic of ‘musical transcendence’ with prizes including a free masterclass and other chances to interact with the Miró Quartet.

continue reading

Filed under: chamber music, Schubert, Strad

Padmore and Bezuidenhout Undertake a Winter Journey of White-Light Intensity

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Here’s my review for Bachtrack of the third and final evening of the Schubert Trilogy recently performed by Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival:

‘Fremd’ is the very first word of the first song (‘Gute Nacht’) in Franz Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. And the sensation of being a stranger, an alien among the signposts of ordinary life – with its cottages and mail coaches, its inns and stray dogs – imbued this interpretation of the entire 24-song cycle by the tenor Mark Padmore and the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

continue reading

Filed under: lieder, Lincoln Center, review, Schubert, White Light Festival

Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at the White Light Festival

Mark Padmore (l) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (r)

Mark Padmore (l) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (r)

In my latest Musical America piece (behind a paywall), I review the second program in the remarkable Schubert Trilogy from last week at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

Tenor Mark Padmore and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout teamed up for three evenings of Schubert lieder cycles (with a touch of Beethoven for the second program — Schwanengesang prefaced by An die ferne Geliebte, reviewed here). Here’s an excerpt:

In a brief introduction to his Tully Hall recital on Thursday, October 15, the tenor Mark Padmore remarked that the sense of longing encompassed by the German Sehnsucht — a word that defies easy translation — provided the link between the evening’s pair of cycles by Schubert and Beethoven, performed with keyboard partner Kristian Bezuidenhout.
The term recital sounds too coldly objective. Certainly it fails to do justice to the sense they achieved of a “through-composed” emotional journey, without the benefit of staging or design elements: Gesamtkunstwerk of music and poetry on an intimate scale….

Filed under: Beethoven, lieder, Musical America, review, Schubert

Prom 40: Haitink and the LSO Trace a Mahlerian Journey through Childhood Innocence


Here’s my review for Bachtrack of Bernard Haitink’s Saturday concert with the London Symphony Orchestra (Prom 40):

Having celebrated his 85th birthday this past March, Bernard Haitink continues to demonstrate that he profits from the advantages of age whilst commanding the deftness of a conductor decades his junior. His programme at the Proms on Saturday evening with the London Symphony Orchestra offered musical perspectives on youthfulness and memory by way of Schubert and Mahler, culminating in the songs of innocence and experience of which the latter’s Symphony no. 4 in G major is woven.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, Mahler, review, Schubert

Garrick Ohlsson’s Seattle Recital

My ears and nerves are still buzzing from the excitement of last night’s recital by the always-dependable Garrick Ohlsson (at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall). What generous programs he offers: Beethoven’s Op. 109 Sonata, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (D760), a triptych of selections by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata in B minor. And as if that weren’t enough, two superbly characterized Chopin waltzes for encores: the Op. 18 Grand Valse Brillante and the Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op. 64, no. 2).

I tend to think of Ohlsson as one of today’s least pretentious and fussy pianists, an artist to be counted on to give performances that are filling and satisfying. Of course that’s possible only because of his utterly confident technique — that left hand! — and his deep knowledge and love of the repertoire. What seems at times to be a “straightforward” approach turns out to reveal subtle insights. In the miracle of late Beethoven, for instance, he was able to explore different facets of the last movement’s variations (the new angle on the ultra-minimal two-note motif over which Beethoven obsesses in the first movement) without seeming to short-shrift the larger architecture beauty.

The Schubert Fantasy emerged as it should: a virtuoso showpiece on the surface, sure, but far more exhilarating for its sheer scope of invention and the pleasure Schubert takes in the powers of transformation of a basic idea. Ohlsson left no doubt as to why the next generation of Romantics fell so deeply in love with this spectacular but anomalous example of Schubertian ambition.

The Chopin Sonata may have been the most satisfying interpretation among these three well-known works. What struck me as especially successful was Ohlsson’s understanding of Chopin’s rhythmic articulation, both in his swooningly beautiful skeins of melody and in the robust, hell-bent momentum of the finale. But this didn’t come across as an affected exaggeration, or at the expense of those other aspects essential to this magnificent score. The whole picture is always in view – it’s just that it resembles getting a higher resolution, more dpi for clarity and detail.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)

And then there were the pieces by the early-twentieth-century American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Two of the Roman Sketches, Op. 7, from 1916 (“The Fountain of the Acqua Paola” and “The White Peacock”) and the Scherzo from his Op. 6 Fantasy Pieces (1913). I found these to be an utterly delightful discovery. Hints of Griffes’s infatuation with then-new French music abound, but there’s something fresh about it all. The killer-energy Scherzo made for a nice cross-link with the Schubert.

Ohlsson recently released a recording devoted to this fascinating artist who died very young, a victim of the influenza pandemic. A gay man from Elmira, New York, Griffes was still of the generation when studying abroad was the done thing to gain any cred as a “classical music” composer.

Here’s what Aaron Copland had to say about this predecessor (in 1952, 32 years after Griffes’s death):

Charles Griffes is a name that deserves to be remembered … What he gave those of us who came after
him was a sense of the adventurous in composition, of being thoroughly alive to the newest trends in
world music and to the stimulus that might have derived from that contact.

Review (c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, piano, review, Schubert

CD Review: Hochman/Homage to Schubert

Benjamin Hochman

Benjamin Hochman; photo by Jürgen Frank

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of encountering Benjamin Hochman in live performance, but I come away from his new release, Homage to Schubert, with a remarkably vivid sense of what he brings to the competitive scene of today’s young pianists. This is his second solo album and debut recording for the AVIE label, and it amply reveals Hochman’s qualities as an interpreter as well as the creative and original programming style that appears to be a signature.

A native of Jerusalem now based in New York, Hochman counts Claude Frank and Richard Goode among his mentors. He made his New York debut in 2006 with a Met Museum recital juxtaposing Bach, Berg, Schubert, and a newly commissioned piece. A similar imaginative leap ties together his program here: two lesser-known Schubert sonatas and a pair of contemporary pieces “commenting” on the Austrian’s legacy — by György Kurtág (Hommage à Schubert) and Jörg Widmann (Idyll und Abgrund), respectively. Hochman performs on a Steinway and benefits from the tasteful production and engineering (Eric Wen and Dennis Patterson).

Of course there’s lots of powerful competition even when it comes to these less-familiar Schubert sonatas. Paul Lewis, the spiritual scion of Alfred Brendel, has recently staked an irresistible claim to this territory, and Mitsuko Uchida is another eloquent advocate. (She also began linking Schubert’s piano music with Schoenberg back in the ’90s.) A fundamental attraction of Hochman is that he allies a natural sympathy for Schubert’s brand of musical thinking with superbly balanced technique, all the while effacing any temptation to showboat or force a newfangled reading onto these scores.

In other words, Hochman’s overall stance toward Schubert himself is pretty traditional, while smartly allowing the “moderns” sharing his program to provide a contemporary angle. It’s a daring and subtle strategy, and one that rewards the listener. Which is by no means to imply that there’s anything even remotely stodgy or routine here: Hochman initiates the proceedings with the gorgeously spun lyrical flow of the Sonata in A major D664 (from 1819), his control of the pulse so mesmerizing that it seems as if this music has always been going on — a stream we’ve been graced to chance upon.

Hochman is fully alert to the potential of Schubert’s wild contrasts. That’s the premise, after all, of pairing the gentle, smaller-scale A major with the hugely ambitious and even aggressive Sonata in D major D850 (the so-called “Gasteiner,” after the spa town where it was written in 1825, the year Schubert sketched most of the “Great” C major Symphony). Yet Hochman doesn’t overload these contrasts with melodrama, but lets the few outbursts in D664 take us by surprise within the larger context.

At several points I could almost imagine D664 versus the “Gasteiner” as a precursor for Schumann’s Eusebius (especially in the melancholy appoggiaturas of D664’s Andante) and Florestan dichotomy. But what excites me the most about Hochman’s deeply satisfying approach to D850 is his implicit understanding of the Schubert-Beethoven connection. By this point, Schubert’s acquired admiration of the German composer had begun inspiring a new level of ambition (he was a Beethovenian convert).

Hochman seems to hint at the uncanny echoes of late Beethoven, as in the “Gasteiner”‘s widely wandering second movement, where one passage of reiterated chords suddenly approaches the radiance of the Arietta in Beethoven’s Op. 111. But he avoids any impression of Schubert as an imitator or epigone: these moments occur as genuine Schubertian epiphanies within a remarkably different musical landscape.

Between Schubert and Beethoven, there is an almost diametrically opposed sense of drama, as Hochman points out in his excellent booklet essay, alluding to Brendel’s famous image of Schubert “the sleepwalker” in contrast to Beethoven “the architect.” That groping around unforeseen corners to alight on a new vista that is so characteristic of Schubert is especially apparent in the weirdly mercurial variants of the finale’s rondo theme as Hochman performs it.

As for the contemporary homages, Hochman has chosen two utterly distinct ways of thinking about Schubert. Kurtág’s lapidary piece (lasting about a minute) distills the contradictory ingredients that make up Schubert into an intense poetic reverie — a musical life that flashes before our ears.

The German composer Widmann — who is just 7 years older than Hochman — has meanwhile written a miniature suite of “six Schubert reminiscences” in Idyll and Abyss (originally conceived as a companion work to the great final B-flat Sonata D960). Teasing direct references to cadences and phrases slip a reflective scrim over the distance between Schubert and us. Alternately playful and disturbing, Widmann’s suite rudely juxtaposes the many sides of Schubert’s personality, purposely emphasizing the paradoxical nature of a genius that encompassed sweet melody, leisured reflection, and savagely violent outbursts. Widmann and Hochman leave it up to the listener to put the pieces together.

(c)2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD review, new music, review, Schubert

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR