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The Music of Franz

New York
Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale, New York
08/15/2014 -  
Franz Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”), D. 810: Allegro – Der Kreuzzug, D. 932 – Die Sterne, D. 939 – Der Wanderer an den Mond, D. 870 – Fragment from aus dem Aeschylus, D.450 – Ständchen, D. 920 – Auf dem Strom, D. 943 – Piano Trio n° 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 – Die Allmacht, D. 852 – Schlachtlied, D. 912
Horszowski Trio: Jesse Mills (Violin), Rieko Aizawa (Piano), Raman Ramakrishnan) (Cello) – Harlem String Quartet: Ilmar Gavilán, Melissa White (Violins), Jaime Amador (Viola), Matthew Zalkind (Cello) – Andrew Schroeder (Baritone), Sara Shafer (Soprano), Paul Appleby (Tenor), Zohar Schondorf (Horn), Brian Zeger (Pianist), Members of the Bard Festival Chorale, Christopher H. Gibbs (Speaker)

Horszowski Trio (© Bard Summerscape)

In the most exhaustive seven-week compendium of Schubertiana–music, films, poets, art, words, three centuries of Schubert-aligned composers–it was with some relief last night that Christopher Gibbs, himself the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Schubert announced that this would be the “easiest” concert to program.

Last night, in what one listener had called “a variety show” Franz Schubert himself had arranged the program.

Who (except scholars like Mr. Gibbs) knew? A year after Beethoven’s death, Franz Schubert arranged his own concert, attempting to mount the throne of the Emperor himself. In a typical program of the 1820’s, he offered chamber music, songs, a chorus or two, some tryouts for other music. The musicians then were mainly Vienna’s most established artists, pianists, singers and string players who had joyfully performed for Beethoven himself, and were eager to play the music of this possible Heir Apparent.

Of course it didn’t work out. Nature (most likely the “French disease”, syphilis) killed Schubert before his time had come, at the age of 31. But last night, amidst all the other concerts arranged in Bard’s Summerscape, we had an opportunity to listen to what Schubert had heard in 1828.

The variety was fascinating, from a the diversity of song, to a jingoist chorale and a pair of chamber pieces. And the centerpiece was not only one of Schubert’s finest works, but a piece played with an almost inhuman brilliance.

Nobody can help but love the E-flat Trio, but Professor Gibbs offered a patina which put the piece in a very special dimension. In pre-concert words, he not only classified this as an homage to Beethoven, but offered so many semiotic and coded references to that composer which Schubert had inserted and rejected that it could have inspired an Umberto Eco. (“Franz’s Pendulum”?)

However, when the young Horszowski Trio took to the stage, playing the rarely heard unabridged version of the Trio, all the arcane homages became irrelevant.

The group takes its name from the late Mieczyslaw Horszowski, whose last student had been the pianist of the group, Rieko Aizawa. One could almost call her the third string player of the group, for her runs and octaves on the piano had a virtual glissando feeling. True, one’s personal feeling in a Trio must be subjugated to the feeling of the ensemble, but she offered, amidst her technical flawlessness, the kind of personal commitment which her mentor himself had offered the world.

Not that the others were inferior. In fact, the entire feeling of this long, (but never lengthy) work was of a zest and dedication. That marvelous second movement, which can be played dolefully, sadly, was here given an elegiac even vernal lightness, cellist Raman Ramankrishnan playing the theme with delight. The fact that it was repeated thrice in the romping rondo finale shows that their instincts were right, that this is work of salute, not condolence or farewell.

This was the only work which received a standing ovation in Bard’s Sosnoff Theater, and was well worthy of the plaudits.

Harlem String Quartet (© Courtesy of the Artists)

The other chamber music was the first movement (as Schubert had programmed it) of the “Death and the Maiden” quartet. The Harlem String Quartet has been making waves over the past few years, and their enthusiasm was telling.

Technically, the group was excellent. But their enthusiasm, their rushing forward in the music ofttimes blurred clarity. In their rush to produce Schubert’s own rush in creation, the lines crossed, those magnificent heavenly melodies were hidden behind clouds of sound.

The other star of the show was obviously Brian Zeger, that most experienced accompanist, who provided the background for some interesting choral works. The most interesting was Auf dem Strom, apparently written for the original program.

Tenor Paul Appleby performed with admirable resonance, but horn player Zohar Schondorf was the star, not simply an obbligato instrumentalist but an equal partner, intertwining sounds of the strophic melody with voice and piano for a very new sound.

Baritone Andrew Schroeder had the daunting task of singing five Schubert songs with the most diverse emotions. His final one, Die Allmacht was a mundane hymn, but the great surprise was a song from Aeschylus, a hymn to the sun. The German translation from the Greek obviously took many a poetic license. But this didn’t detract from the lovely sweeping melody.

The most popular work was of course Ständchen, and the women of the Bard Festival Chorale gave a virginal background to Sarah Shafer’s operatic rendition.

The finale was obviously written for Schubert’s male friends to sing minus piano, probably led by ex-singer Franz himself. Schlachtlied, “Battle Song” was a rip-roaring piece of Jingoism, the words telling how “Our blood will flow freely for the Fatherland, let us smile at death, for God will be on our side.”

Well, fortunately, the anthem was not for Germany but the Hapsburg Empire, which didn’t really do too much fighting in the 19th Century, so the men sung with serious dedication.

Nobody jumped up from the audience to join an army, but obviously Schubert ended his own program with this patriotism, inspiring his audience to think that the composer deserved all their support.

Alas, it was too late. A few months later, Schubert passed on to a hopefully more peaceful Valhalla. We, though, heard his hopes sung and played as a joyous celebration.


CODA. Leon Botstein and Bard College have presented so many wonders here that I and many other would have enjoyed attending far more than we did. But us driverless, carless Manhattan multitudes are restrained by the bus service which goes to only a few concerts.

Could I humbly suggest that next year visitors take the train, and that, with advance reservations, a bus or taxi meet them for arrivals and after-concert departures? Such convenience, with such care for the music, is not to be scoffed at.

CODA II: Listing the complete programs would be impossible here, but there are many many more. A visit to http://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape/ is more than worthwhile. It is a necessity.


Harry Rolnick



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