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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Schubert: A Summer Journey

Summer Music Dept.: This year's Bard Music Festival focused on Franz Schubert, filling halls that had been emptier for the likes of Stravinsky and Berg. Here's my report of the day my daughter and I spent at the Festival earlier this month. We're eager to see how next summer's celebration of Carlos Chávez plays out.


IN THE END, Malcom Bilson was right. The distinguished pianist and early-music specialist spoke and performed during a 10 AM panel titled “Invention and Reinvention: Who Was Schubert?” and, comparing a piano from Schubert’s time with one of the modern Steinways, convincingly demonstrated that the composer’s keyboard music was intended for the particular sonority of the earlier instrument.

Franz Schubert
The day ended with a performance by the American Symphony Orchestra of Joseph Joachim’s realization of Schubert’s Sonata in C Major (“Grand Duo”), D. 812—a sweeping orchestration created 30 years after the work was written. Although Schubert intended it for two pianists, Joachim’s version seemed to employ the entirety of the orchestra at all times, each section in a frenzy of fortissimo. Combined with conductor Leon Botstein’s odd tempo changes within movements, the excess of it all grew so tedious that each of the finale’s false endings, which are amusing in the original, proved frustrating reminders that we couldn’t get away from it yet. Had Joachim crafted his version with a more Schubert-conscious orchestra and orchestration style in mind, he would have served the music better.

Not that orchestrations and other arrangements are a bad thing! Hector Berlioz showed how it can be done with his sublime orchestration of Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (which is an “elf king” and not, as the projected translation had it, an “erl king.” That’s a Texan). It blew Liszt’s orchestration of the same song (played in succession) off the map, and made mincemeat of Offenbach’s mariachi-band-like orchestration of “Ständchen” (the best instrumental realization of which was by the John Kirby Sextet).

Baritone Andrew Schroeder sang three top-notch Brahms orchestrations, while mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle ably tackled those elf kings, reinforcing her excellent work during the afternoon’s program of works written by or (probably) known to the youthful Schubert.

Subtitled “The Path to Erlkönig,” it effectively contextualized the musical world of Vienna out of which Schubert’s groundbreaking, career-making song erupted, treating us to three other composers’ versions, including a hilariously sweet 1782 version by Corona Schröter. Partsongs and early oddities by Schubert were deftly rendered, and pianist Orion Weiss’s beautiful performance of a Vor(íšek impromptu reminded us of the excellence of Schubert’s so-titled works.

Weiss also played a half-dozen of Schubert’s waltzes with characteristic charm, then nailed the relentless piano part of the true and only “Erlkönig” as baritone Andrew Garland scared the bejesus out of us.

During the morning’s panel discussion, Christopher Gibbs—who also put together the two-week festival with fellow scholar-in-residence Morten Solvik—showed us four Schubert portraits to illustrate the posthumous romanticization of the short-lived composer. Because the bulk of his music was discovered and published (and many of the portraits created) only after his death, his adherents advanced him as an antidote to the Wagner cult. Thus, when the “Unfinished” Symphony premiered in 1865—37 years after the composer’s death—it was seen as the perfect high-romantic alternative.

And that piece got a terrific performance during the evening concert. Botstein and his virtuoso forces treated the score with the reverence it deserves by acknowledging its elegiac nature without wallowing in interpretive excess. When the cellos kicked in with the first movement’s well-known theme, it sounded as fresh as it did familiar.

But the high point of the day was the afternoon performance of “Winterreise.” Baritone Tyler Duncan convinced me that he’s lived through the heartache the two dozen songs comprising this cycle describe. His vocal tone was rich and focused, his understanding of the texts nuanced to the stories they tell.

Pianist Erika Switzer was an equal partner; less obvious, perhaps, but only because she sang only with music. In “Die Post,” for example, she captured the relentlessness of the horse and horn as Duncan effectively varied the sound of the strophic text. And Switzer caressed the chromatic wind-gusts of “Der Lindenbaum” as Duncan told what at first seems a poignant folk-tale but glows with deeper melancholy as it progresses.

We should file out silently after the song-cycle’s finish, but the audience felt duty bound to overdo its appreciation. Have you all so fully recovered from those youthful broken hearts?

Bard Music Festival: Schubert and His World
Bard College, Aug. 9

Metroland Magazine, 14 August 2014

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