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