Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 4: Strategic Thinking and Laughing

Stratford may focus largely on Shakespeare, but does periodically dip into that later golden age of the English theatre, the period from the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 (with the consequent re-opening of theatres shuttered by the Puritans) through into the mid-eighteenth century.  This period was a high-water mark in the evolution of the English comedy of manners, and The Beaux' Strategem is a classic example -- and a very funny one, too.

This play was the final work in the short but successful career of George Farquhar, who died at the age of 30 very shortly after this delightful comedy had its premiere.  It's very much a period piece, in that the financial needs of two younger sons are the driving force behind the plot,and in that characters are given names appropriate to their personalities (Squire and Mrs. Sullen, Lady Bountiful, Mr. Aimwell, etc.).  But it's also curiously far ahead of its time in its repeated insistence that easier access to divorce is a sensible remedy to unhappy marriages.  And Farquhar certainly changed the comic form he inherited by toning down the heated bawdiness of earlier plays like The Country Wife and writing more humane portrayals of his lower characters as well as his nobility.

Stratford's new production, in the Festival Theatre, stakes its ground even before the play begins.  The traditional pre-show fanfare in the lobby is played not by the fanfare brasses, as we expect, but by a woodwind quartet accompanied by a single snare drum!  Music throughout was composed (or arranged from the period works of William Boyce) by Berthold Carriere, for so many years music director and composer par excellence at Stratford.  Carriere also led the orchestra, to fine effect.

The set is simple, a handsome period-appropriate treatment of the traditional Festival Theatre balcony.  As the action basically flip-flops between a tavern and a drawing room, there are really only two major settings to create, and the simple addition of a few pieces of furniture whisked on and off by the company does the trick.  Indeed, one of the delights of this kind of traditional Stratford production is to see how smoothly these scene changes are accomplished, often while the final moments of a scene (or first moments of the next scene) are being performed by the actors!

This play is definitely an ensemble piece, and the number of leading performers of other productions who appear here in either minor roles or simply as "Servants" underlines the fact.  The key people here are the two younger sons, Aimwell (played by Mike Shara) and Archer (played by Colm Feore).  These two have blown away their small inheritances, and have ridden to the country town of Lichfield to try to acquire a couple of well-to-do wives for themselves.  Aimwell tries his luck with Dorinda (Bethany Jillard), the daughter and heiress of Lady Bountiful, while Archer romances Kate Sullen (Lucy Peacock), unhappily married to Dorinda's brother, Squire Sullen.

This convention of two parallel couples is a favourite comic device, but here it comes with a darker side, and that is the misery of Mrs. Sullen.  Her scenes are peppered with speeches in which she bewails her fate, and the law which ties her fortune irrecoverably to her oafish husband, making it impossible for her to get free of him.  Dorinda is very much her confidante, and the scenes between these two were beautifully played by Peacock and Jillard, with a very fresh, winning air that made these two characters sympathetic.

No less sympathetic were the portrayals of Aimwell and Archer who, on the face of it, are two pretty sleazy operators.  Shara and Feore played off each other very smoothly, and their early scenes together set the scenario on foot clearly.  Of the two, Archer comes off as the true master of sleaze in his repeated attempts to seduce Mrs. Sullen -- attempts which, with her tacit cooperation and encouragement, very nearly happen on several occasions!

The tavern scenes were more broadly comic than the household ones, and here Farquhar took leave of his theatrical predecessors by allowing his country folk more rounded characters and more entertaining lives of their own than would have been written a generation earlier.  All the company took full advantage and these scenes came vividly to life.  Also memorable was the inept duelling that took place when a gang of cutthroats invaded Lady Bountiful's home at the end of the play.

And it's here, in these final scenes, that we actually encounter Lady Bountiful (Martha Henry) face to face.  Alas, Lady Bountiful is one of the few truly over-wrought characters in the play, and Henry was forced to push her portrayal right to the wall to make the character work.  No room for subtlety in such a role, and more's the pity.

It's easy for these centuries-old comedies to become stilted, artificial museum pieces.  Alternatively, it's a huge mistake to try to play them like a modern physical farce.  Director Antoni Cimolino admirably achieved the middle ground, falling into neither trap.  Visually and dramatically, this production was delightful.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 3: Recovered From The Fever

It's time for the major Stratford binge of the year:  five plays in just over a week!  That's a lot of theatre all at one go, to be sure, but at Stratford it's always worth while.

Sorry to have to say, though, the Noel Coward's Hay Fever is one of the more disappointing shows I have seen at Stratford in recent years.  But let me hasten to add: this is not the fault either of the actors or the production.  I'm laying the blame squarely on Coward's script.  Hay Fever, for my money, is basically a pseudo-comedic glorification of bullying.  The four central characters, the Bliss family, start out nasty and stay nasty throughout.  Their life appears to be anything but blissful.  They snipe at each other, and at their four hapless house guests.  The comic lines are more often put-downs and slam-downs than any other Coward play I have seen.  It takes a while for the material to even start to become funny, and then it very quickly becomes unfunny again.  Worst of all, and a serious sin for a playwright to commit (in my humble opinion) is that the script forces Judith Bliss (the mother) to start over-acting the moment she hits the stage, and keep increasing the quotient of over-acting far past the point of over-kill.  I don't think I was alone in finding this unfunny, as the well-filled house at my performance were also pretty silent for long stretches of what is supposedly a masterly comedy.

Having said all of that, the actors -- one and all -- deserve every credit for the efforts they put into making this creaky piece work on stage.  There was an abundance of well-staged movement to keep the pictures constantly interesting, and vocal work with period-appropriate 1930s accents was uniformly strong and clear.  As the actressy Judith, Lucy Peacock turned in a sterling portrayal of an over-the-hill performer who refuses to admit she is over the hill, and refuses to retire from the stage even when she has retired and is at home.  Kevin Bundy did well, too, with the writer husband, David.  Ruby Joy and Tyrone Savage were excellent as the son and daughter, Sorel and Simon Bliss.  In some ways, the comic gem of the household was the maid, Clara, played by Sarah Orenstein.  She's a delight precisely because she is a unique, one-of-a-kind, anti-caricature of the servants' hall, like almost all of Coward's servant characters (no two of them alike).  Orenstein found all kinds of funny tones of voice and body poses to underline her portrayal of this most undignified housemaid.

The house guests are actually the more interesting characters of the script, for me.  Each of them has to serve as a target and punching bag for the family, but each one approaches that fate with a winning air, and a style unlike any of the others.  Sandy Tyrell, the boxer, is played by Gareth Potter as one of those appealing , slightly vacant-headed young men so common in plays of this period.  Cynthia Dale gets a good deal of fire out of the socialite Myra Arundel.  Ijeoma Emesowum is certainly not vacant as the flapper girl, Jackie Coryton, and shows a good deal of spirit.  The most polished character in the play is undoubtedly Sanjay Talmar's portrayal of Richard Greatham, a diplomatist -- Talmar is so polished that his lines practically slide off his tongue, and the insults fired at him slip equally smoothly off his shoulders.

The most genuinely funny moment for me came at the end when the family all fell into simultaneous, fortissimo argument while their four house guests tiptoed exaggeratedly down the stairs and out the front door.

There's a cute comment in one of the programme notes about how Coward never even got past the front hall in this play, but that's misleading.  The action demands a set which is a combination front hall/drawing room/dining room, and designer Douglas Paraschuk delivered the goods.  His two-story tall glass windows as backdrop were breathtaking, as was the staircase sweeping upwards past them -- and that included the trick ninth step up, which characters always had to step over, jump over, or reach over, although precisely what was wrong with it was never quite clear from the actions of those who had first stepped on it.

The front drop which we saw before and between scenes was a lovely group caricature of the Bliss family.  It suited the crazy, unreal tone of the piece to perfection, as did the selection of Noel Coward songs (sung by the Master himself) which were interspersed with instrumental pieces during the pre-show and scene breaks.  What could be more appropriate for this houseful of borderline lunatics than Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun?

Director Alisa Palmer certainly deserves a lot of credit for making this piece lift off as much as it did.  She wrote a detailed explanation for the programme of her reasons for staging Hay Fever, apparently seeing it as a kind of feminist tract by a gay man written several generations early.  Sadly, none of this ever became apparent for me.  I doubt whether I will ever bother seeing a production of this play again -- given the nature of the script, once is quite enough for me.

A Concert For The Ages

Last Tuesday, the Toronto Symphony played a concert at Koerner Hall the night before their departure for the orchestra's first European tour since 2000.  If this concert was any indication, the audiences of Europe are in for a real surprise from an orchestra and conductor too often dismissed as "second-rate".

The concert began with Claude Vivier's Orion.  This work was unfamiliar to me, although I had heard another piece by this composer.  I immediately sensed that this is a powerful, purposeful structure which truly makes use of the resources of the orchestra as a body and not just as a palette of varying instrumental sounds.  I would really enjoy an opportunity to hear it again, as I plainly sensed that there was much more to this work than just the superficial type of sound effects strung together that characterizes so much contemporary music.

But then came the gem of the entire evening, a work which many experts consider to be among the greatest masterpieces of all music, yet one which is shamefully rare on Canadian concert programmes.  There could surely be no better environment (other than, perhaps, an English Gothic cathedral) in which to hear Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  The rich, full sound within a modest size of Koerner Hall exactly suited the profile of this beautiful music for double string orchestra and quartet.  There are three distinct layers of sound: the large first orchestra, the very much smaller second orchestra, and the solo quartet.  The second orchestra are directed to be placed "at a distance" and play very quietly.  The quartet are the front desk players of the main body.

Vaughan Williams explored the modal harmonies of the tune and the sonorities of the strings with an intensity and beauty rare in modern music.  The music is radiant, inward, glowing, passionate, and reflective by turns, and the entire 15-minute length flows by in a continuous stream of melody that has no parallel in any music known to me.

I heard the orchestra play this piece once before, and that was in Roy Thomson Hall before its renovation.  In that echoing concrete cavern, the string sonorities sounded so distant that the players might as well have been in another room.  But Tuesday's performance was lush, full, and luminous.  The music moved with purpose yet without haste, the climaxes beautifully prepared, and the sound contrast in antiphonal exchanges between first and second orchestras balanced to perfection.  If I wanted to quibble, I would ask for the second orchestra to be moved to the upper gallery above the stage, but those seats were all taken in the sold-out hall.  I would also ask concertmaster Jonathan Crow to play his solos a little less emphatically and with more of a reflective air.  But these are only quibbles.  Overall the performance moved me to the edge of tears with its exalted and exultant character.  Maestro Peter Oundjian here demonstrated exactly how far the string sections of this orchestra have come under his stewardship.  Such a reading of this work would not have been possible at any other time during the years I have regularly attended Toronto Symphony concerts.  It was no accident that the audience greeted this work with loud cheers and three calls for the conductor and soloists.

After the intermission, we heard a neatly played, energetic reading of the Overture to Oberon by Weber.  It's a typical piece by this composer, closely-structured and vigorous without becoming either showy or experimental.  I've always felt that the closest parallel to the music of Weber among well-known composers is found in Mendelssohn.

The programme concluded with the Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff.  This has definitely become a major showpiece for the orchestra, played more than once in recent years and recorded for the TSO Live label.  I don't think the extra fire on this occasion was just due to the more intimate hall, although the hall's sound did begin to feel a bit "crowded" as the full late-Romantic orchestra fired up with all its big guns!  Oundjian and the orchestra definitely got the bit between their teeth, and delivered a rip-roaring performance that I doubt I will ever hear exceeded.  Familiarity with the score has bred, not contempt, but precision in coping with the rapid passage work and (in the finale) the demonic cross-rhythms.  The spooky, ghostly "haunted ballroom" atmosphere of the second movement came across with more than a shiver, not least from the wildly skirling woodwinds.  At the end of the finale, the strings again shone in a very different light with the powerful melody and off-beat chords of the Easter hymn, and the final rapid coda flung off into the echoing spaces of the hall at near-supersonic speed, but still with spot-on rhythmic accuracy.

Again there were cheers and a standing ovation.  As an encore, the orchestra presented the third movement march from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.  It was well-played and reached an impressive roar which again strained the limits of the hall's acoustic.  But it came across to me as the most pedestrian part of the concert, and I would have gladly left with Rachmaninoff as the final word.  I have to admit that Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are not my favourites among his works!

The tour, by the way, also includes solo appearances by renowned Canadian violinist James Ehnes, and the other major piece not heard at this concert was Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony ("The Year 1905"), another massive work which this orchestra has truly made its own.  Warm best wishes to the TSO and Maestro Oundjian for a tour which I am sure will be a great success.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Beautiful Music Resounding

No, I didn't make it back to the Festival of the Sound.  But, in a way, I guess I did.  This afternoon I headed to The Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto to hear another recital by the Cheng2Duo, the sister-and-brother piano-cello team which I first heard at the Festival less than a month ago.

If you read my remarks about their performances in Parry Sound (Performers or Musicians) you will know that I was very impressed by the interpretive power and musicianship displayed by pianist Silvie Cheng and cellist Bryan Cheng.  To that I have to addd the natural manner and articulate delivery of their introductory remarks before each work.

This recital began, like the one in Parry Sound, with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No 4 in C Major, Op. 102.  Again, as before, the wayward improvisatory character of much of this music was aptly presented.  I especially enjoyed the folk-dance character of the allegro vivace in the finale, a theme that could easily become too pompous for its own good.  The crisp unity of the two instruments was most notable in the several places where the notes are practically ripped off, leaving an echoing silence before the music resumes.  The Holy Trinity Church has a much more resonant acoustic than the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, with an   echo decay of a couple of seconds, and the Cheng2Duo sensibly lengthened the pauses to let the sound die right away before continuing.  This did the music no harm, and was probably just what Beethoven heard in that inner ear of his mind as he composed it.  The resemblance to the similar echoing pauses in many parts of Bruckner's symphonies was striking.  Silvie Cheng's playing was remarkably clear even in Beethoven's densest, thickest writing.

Next we were given the Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119 by Prokofiev.  This work is completely new to me, and immediately joined my "music shopping list".  As in other masterpieces from the latter end of Prokofiev's life, we have to take account of the impact of the Zhdanov decrees on Soviet composers.  Prokofiev was especially successful in circumventing the strictures of Soviet realism, while still producing music of worth and substance, as this Sonata clearly proves.  In the second and third movements there is more than a hint of the sardonic humour so common in this composer's work.  I get the sense that he was actually tweaking the noses of the Kremlin's uncultured bureaucrats, so subtly that they would then be exposed to the charge of being too dense to get the joke!

The Cheng2Duo performed this music with power and insight.  The long singing cello lines in the first movement were a delight.  The sardonic element in the two latter movements was clear without being overt, and the dance-like rhythms of the scherzo were again clear and crisp.  One passage in the first movement really caught my attention, as the piano went deep and dark while the cello rose to the heights, clearly catching the ear of the audience.  Also notable was the power of Bryan Cheng's pizzicati in the second movement -- they have to be strong to be heard against the heavy-duty piano writing, and these went well beyond strong into the realm of "savage"!

The third work on the programme was Paganini's Variations on One String on a Theme of Rossini.  Now, since it was by Paganini, it was plainly written for the violin -- but curiously for the lowest string, the G string.  Frankly, I'm just as glad not to hear it in that form.  The low strings in all the string family have a dark sound that, on modern instruments, is apt to waver between growly and gravelly.  But translate it to the high A string of the cello, and voila!  The music sings clearly, aptly proving the oft-heard assertion that the cello sounds more like a human voice than any other instrument.

Meanwhile, what of the poor pianist?   Paganini was a first-rank virtuoso and plainly did not intend to share the glory with any such lowly creature as his accompanist.  I've actually played one or two works of this genre, and the piano part is apt to be a monotonous string of oom-pah-oom-pah march chords or oom-pah-pah waltz rhythms.  This particular piece isn't quite that bad, but still....

But no fear.  Bryan Cheng triumphantly surmounted the technical challenges of the writing, coaxing some quite extraordinary sounds out of his instrument in the process!  His high harmonics were particularly impressive for beauty of tone, as these are apt to become squeaky and squealy when executed at high speed.  As for Silvie Cheng at the piano, she miraculously invested even the most boring accompaniment passages with musical beauty and interest.  Fascinating performance!

The encore was the Duo's own arrangement of Libertango by Astor Piazzola.  As Silvie explained it, Bryan first became dissatisfied with the various cello arrangements of this work on offer and created his own.  Silvie then had to rearrange the piano part to match his thinking!  The performance was aptly slow and seductive in the opening, bursting into fiery rhythm at the main theme and finishing with an accelerating coda to a breathless, explosive finish.

This recital was recorded by the CBC for later broadcast on In Concert and I would certainly urge you to keep an ear open for that broadcast.  The Cheng2Duo digs deep under the virtuoso fireworks to find the inner life of each work in their varied repertoire.  While they certainly display impeccable technique, there's much more to good music than that and this pair of artists have a great gift for coaxing the music off the page and into vivid life.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 9: Jan Lisiecki

No clever title for this final post of my 2014 time at my favourite music festival.

The concert on Monday afternoon starred Jan Lisiecki, and for once the term "starred" is entirely appropriate!

Lisiecki first appeared at the Festival in 2007 at the ripe old age of 12 years!  Already at that time it was plain that he had the makings of a pianist who would also be a fine musician (see post # 3 for a discussion of the distinction!  Performers or Musicians? ).

Now, 7 years later, this young Canadian pianist has become a true rising star of the musical world.  Certainly a recording contract from the prestigious German label Deutsche Grammophon is a testament to his stature!

On this occasion he began with a set of five Chopin pieces for solo piano -- two of which fall into the category of "genuine warhorses".  When performing a piece as well known as the Grande Valse Brilliante, the pianist had better be spot-on with technique and have something quite definite to say about the music.  This Lisiecki certainly did accomplish.  I've heard one of the so-called "greats" blur this entire piece into oblivion with the sustain pedal pressed firmly into the floor.  Lisiecki took the opposite approach: with the pedal mostly left alone, he treated a number of the melodies in this chain of waltzes to a light, precise, clearly articulated staccato.  This uncommon approach brushed away the cobwebs of tradition and lifted the music off the earth and into the realm of the fairy scherzos of Mendelssohn or Berlioz.

While his rendition of the famous Minute Waltz was played at a breathtaking clip, it too was clearly and precisely articulately and cleanly pedalled.

In between we got two more waltzes and a most musical and shapely account of one of Chopin's truly poetic utterances, a Nocturne.  It seemed to me a pity that the solo recital portion of the programme ended so soon; I was definitely willing to hear more!

After the intermission the stage filled up with an ensemble of 17 string players: a double octet plus one bass.  This large group played Mendelssohn's famous Octet, a perennial Festival favourite.  Opinions were sharply divided between yours truly and my seat neighbour, an experienced violinist.  He thought it was marvellous, and took an early opportunity to lead the standing ovation.

However, I did not enjoy it as much.  The playing was definitely of the highest standard, but the concept left me cold.  Mendelssohn's writing in this piece is perfectly judged and balanced for the eight players, and it is rightly acclaimed as a great masterpiece.  Doubling the string body caused the sound to become thicker, rounder, less clear, while the addition of the bass tilted the sound picture into a darker, warmer area than the original.  The greatest victim was the lightning-quick scherzo, which lost its gossamer-light fairy quietness and became instead a muscular, emphatic, athletic (but not graceful) romp.  The one real benefit was the the larger body opened up a bigger difference between scherzo and finale, so that the last movement for once came across as something more than just a continuation of the third one.

The concert ended with Lisiecki returning to join a slightly-smaller body of string players in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2.  This is not perhaps one of the great masterworks of the concerto repertoire, but it certainly is a marvellous virtuoso showpiece.  Lisiecki rode the whirlwind writing with great aplomb and energy, the unending scales and arpeggios rocketing off the stage and throughout the hall.  As a most necessary contrast, his playing in the slow movement was gentle and poetic -- although the movement was taken at a far faster tempo than usual.

Once again, though, I was disappointed by the nature of the orchestral sound.  As in many of Mendelssohn's orchestral works, there are lengthy passages where the strings fill in the sound picture with their own endless scales and arpeggios while the main melodic substance is carried by the winds and (occasionally) the brass.  With these instruments missing, key parts of the musical argument were not heard at certain passages, and the whole sound seemed too thin overall (curiously, the opposite effect to the Octet).

The capacity audience were loud in their appreciation at the end of the concert, and rightly so, but the two Mendelssohn works were a pair of experiments that I would rather not see repeated.  Some works are best not transcribed to different formats.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 8: Schubertiade Finale

The Friday night concert at the Festival gave two of the greatest and most popular chamber works of Schubert in harness.  These were the Death and the Maiden string quartet in D minor, D. 810, and the Trout piano quintet in A major, D.667.

I've chosen to take these two pieces separately from the rest of the Schubertiade for personal reasons, and beg your indulgence, dear readers.

When I first met the man who would become my husband, Massi Tanaka, I quickly found out that (like me) he loved the music of Schubert.  We spent many happy hours together listening to Schubert, at concerts, or in the car while driving around to various places, or just at home.  These two particular works were special favourites of his.

In 2012 he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and he died on Christmas Day, December 25, 2013.  I very quickly decided that I would like to sponsor a concert at the Festival of the Sound in his memory, and dropped into the Festival office to talk to the Executive Director, Jennifer McGillivray, an old friend of mine.  I told her that any concert with Schubert would be ideal.  She showed me this one in the upcoming season programme, and I knew instantly that this was -- had to be -- Massi's concert.  So for me it was a special, personal privilege to be allowed to sponsor this performance of two of Massi's favourite pieces in his honour and memory.

The common feature of these two wonderful works is that each contains a slow movement, theme and variations, based on the melody of a Schubert lied (art song).  We heard both of those lieder in the afternoon concert (see my previous post).  But it's important to park the text of the lied somewhere else when listening to these chamber works.  For purposes of this music, I don't think the texts serve any kind of subtextual purpose at all.  These simply become beloved melodies which the composer wished to use in a new way.

Having said that, though, the predominant mood of the D minor quartet is one of darkness of emotion.  The quartet opens in a mood almost of anger.  The opening phrases remind me of a person in a boiling rage, biting and snapping off the ends of words.  There is a kind of raw emotional outpouring at work throughout this lengthy movement.  The slow movement theme and variations based on the song Der Tod und das Mädchen takes the sadness of that famous lied and amplifies it until it becomes a universal threnody of tragedy, sorrow and loss, ranking for power right alongside the funeral march of the Eroica symphony.  The vehement scherzo brings scant relief -- even the major key trio seems to be struggling for a breakthrough.  Only in the vigorous finale does the quartet finally win through -- after three-quarters of an hour -- to a kind of acceptance that this sadness and loss is an integral part of life.

I'm writing about this piece in such terms because that was the nature of the incredibly intense performance we heard from the Brodsky Quartet.  Gripping from first to last, this interpretation reached a peak of almost overwhelming power and intensity in the variations, taken at the slowest possible tempo and with every note laden with meaning and significance.  It was certainly long past time that this ensemble appeared at the Festival, and I definitely hope to hear them again soon.

Then, after the intermission, a most necessary contrast to the emotional depth and power of the first half.  It's no wonder that the Trout Quintet has become one of the two most frequently performed works in the history of the Festival of the Sound.  It would be hard to imagine a sunnier, more genial, more summer-like piece of music.  That's not to say that the piece is without excitement, only that  the mood is predominantly jolly and joyful.  So is the eponymous song, even though it ends with the fish caught on the baited hook!

There are two curious facts about this particular work: one is that it is in 5 movements, rather than the more usual three or four, and the other is that it is scored for violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano.  Much of the sunny character of the music comes from the fact that the piano part is often placed very high on the keyboard, with melodies played in parallel octaves or occasionally in parallel sixths.  It's a common procedure in Schubert's works for piano 4-hands (where it serves the purpose of keeping the pianists from killing each other with their fingernails), but here its effect is more to reinforce the overall lightness of tone.

The very opening is a rising 6-note arpeggio from the piano, the same which forms the continuous rippling accompaniment of the lied.  Here, played once, it acts almost like a fanfare summoning our attention.  As the movement rolls on, it continues to appear as a frequent signal at breaks between phrases.  This movement is a great example of Schubert's ability to spin out a long stream of melody, where each phrase grows out of the one before in the most natural way.  The slow second movement is a gentle, almost pastoral interlude.  The third movement scherzo comes across as more of a rustic peasant dance than anything else.  The fourth movement variations follow a typical 19th-century scheme: simple melodic variations, a variation built only on the bass line, a minor key variation, and then return to the major and finally back to the original tune to finish.  The finale is a lively summing-up of all that has gone before, and ends with a series of downwards arpeggios in the piano that somewhat come across as a mirror-image of the rising arpeggio at the start.

For this joyful work, the Magellan Ensemble were joined by Jeffrey Stokes on the double bass, and this team turned in a lively performance (the scherzo taken at an especially brisk clip).  There was lovely lyrical playing in the second movement andante, and the variations were delightful.  In all this music the piano part was nicely scaled to match the strings.  All in all, a delightful performance of a time-honoured favourite.

I know Massi would have loved it.

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 7: Schubertiade

Composer Franz Schubert used to try out his works on small audiences of his friends and family at private homes.  Such evenings of music making were known as "Schubertiades", and a typical one might include piano pieces, songs, and/or chamber music.

This whole week at the Festival of the Sound has been rather like a Schubertiade, with works by this composer cropping up in the majority of the concerts.

Start with the string quartets.  There are three major Schubert quartets that come from the final years of his life.  These "big three" each have their own distinguishing characteristics, and it's hard to imagine three works for the same combination of instruments that could be more unlike each other.

The first one we heard was the A Minor Quartet (D.804 in the Deutsch catalogue of Schubert's music).  It's commonly referred to as the Rosamunde Quartet, because the slow movement uses a lovely melody from one of the entr'actes of his music for that resounding flopperoo of a stage play -- see that story in my companion blog under the heading of Meet the Princess of Cyprus!

Unlike several other cases where Schubert recycled a much-loved melody, he did not write a set of variations on the theme here.  It appears, says its say, leads to other melodic developments, returns once as a kind of recapitulation and then is heard no more.  The most ear-catching movement of this quartet, for me, is the graceful minuet -- really a pair of minuets -- which replaces the more usual scherzo in third place.  It's by no means the only spot where this piece harks back to the more courtly world of the eighteenth century.  The whole work is a beautiful example of Schubert at his lyrical best, and was beautifully played by the Brodsky Quartet.  On the same program they also gave us the earlier Quartettsatz ("Quartet Movement") in C Minor, D.703, a more dramatic work which remained as a single movement since Schubert never wrote any companions for it.

Then it was the turn of the Penderecki Quartet to present the G Major Quartet, D.877.  My own sense of this titanic and revolutionary work is that it became "the road not followed" in the evolution of chamber music.  Musicologist Jeff Stokes made much in his pre-concert lecture about how certain features of the quartet (especially the extraordinary use of tremolando effects) later reappeared in the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, but I would suggest instead that those features evolved more along the path from Beethoven's late symphonies through the dramatic orchestration of Wagner.  Just my thinking.  Certainly no later composer of chamber music followed Schubert's lead.

This is a strange and disconcerting sound world, where the chord structure of the music keeps making lightning-fast shifts between major and minor and back again, while the frequent tremolandos increase the intensity.  Since the themes are already pretty heavy-duty in that field, the whole experience is breathtaking -- especially when given with the power that the Penderecki ensemble brought to it.  But it's not a comfortable or entertaining piece, by any stretch, for either performers or listeners, and will (I think) always remain a rare bird in performance.

I'm going to deal with the third of the "Great Three" in a separate post for reasons which will become obvious when I do it!

Like the quartets, Schubert's piano sonatas conclude with a group of three which stand alone for power as well as for experimentation and unique effects.  We heard Leopoldo Erice in the last one, D.960 in B flat major.  He prefaced it with the Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major, D.899, one of the most graceful and most difficult of Schubert's piano utterances.  Keeping the melody audible on the 5th finger while the same hand plays a rippling flow of notes on the other fingers, at the same time keeping the whole process both quiet and gentle,  is a real technical challenge (as I can attest -- I've tried to play this piece without a whole lot of success!).  In Erice's hands, it sounded both easy and inevitable.

The Sonata was a performance of breathtaking power.  Erice stretched the limits with prolonged pauses in the first two movements, but such was the intensity of his concentration that the audience stayed right in the music with him.  In a recording for repeated listening, this might become annoying but as a live performance it was completely involving and gripping.  The third and fourth movements crackled with energy and fire as the music lifted off at very fast tempo indeed.

Other works by Schubert were spread through the week, here and there.  The String Trio in B flat major, D. 471,  in one movement, came across beautifully as played by the Magellan Ensemble.  So did the one-movement Piano Trio in B flat, D.28, as given by the Land's End Ensemble.

Two of the most beautiful lyrical outpourings of Schubert's genius were also played.  One was the lovely Adagio (Notturno) for piano trio, D. 897.  The melodies of this piece, moving in parallel thirds and fourths on violin and cello, have always sounded to me for all the world like an operatic duet in instrumental form.  This lovely song without words is almost a first cousin to Bizet's Au fond du temple saint from the opera Les Pecheurs de Perles, a favourite operatic highlight.  And then there was the equally lovely Andantino varie in B minor, D.823 for piano 4-hands, which like so much of Schubert's magnificent work for that medium languishes in undeserved obscurity today.

No Schubertiade would be complete without song, and on Friday afternoon we had a delightful recital of Romantic lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, combined with a couple of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for piano.  The concert began with the Schumann group, then one of the Mendelssohn pieces, then the Brahms group, the other Mendelssohn piece, and finished with a set of eight songs by Schubert, including some of the best-loved of Schubert's over 600 lieder.

I was pleasantly surprised by the three performers.  This was not the first time I had encountered Peter McGillivray as a lieder singer, but his art in this field has gone through quantum improvement in the years since I last heard him.  I had never heard soprano Leslie Fagan singing lieder before, but only operatic music, and the two sound-worlds can be very different.  But no fear -- Fagan is a consummate artist, and proved every bit as fine in this repertoire.  Both singers made good use of the fine acoustics of the Stockey Centre to shade their voices right down to the edge of audibility, especially in Der Tod und das Mädchen ("Death and the Maiden") which was presented as a duet.

Fagan made her mark readily in the famous Gretchen am Spinnrade ("Gretchen at her Spinning Wheel"), a song which is really an operatic aria in all but name.  She was equally effective, and equally at home in the light, playful folksong style of Heidenröslein ("The Rose on the Heath").  Fagan is famous for her sense of humour and her hearty laugh, and these certainly emerged in this song!

McGillivray was especially impressive for his control in the slow, quiet music of Wanderers Nachtlied ("Wanderer's Night Song") and Meeres Stille ("Becalmed Sea").

I've also never heard pianist Leopoldo Erice in the role of accompanist before, but there's no question in my mind that he is the genuine article (and genuine accompanists are very rare artists indeed!).  In his playing, the audience had no trouble catching the images of Schubert's highly visual piano writing, such as the starting and stopping of the spinning wheel in Gretchen, or the rippling waters of the brook in Die Forelle.  His sensitive work set the seal on a highly-successful lieder recital.

The recital programme ended with with a delightful duet rendition of Die Forelle ("The Trout"), and with the two singers making faux-sad faces at each other at the fate of the poor fish -- until they dissolved in laughter again!  But that was not the end.  For an encore, singers and accompanist joined in Schubert's An die Musik ("To Music").  In my current state of mind and emotion, this beautiful song, with its lovely final modulation in the piano at the end of each verse, brought me to the edge of tears:

You lovely art, in how many grey hours,
When life's mad whirl beset me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you
Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You lovely art, I thank you for it!
You lovely art, I thank you.