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So You Want to Write Schubert Octet?

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/29/2022 -  
Hannah Kendall: Tuxedo: Plaid x Plaid (World Premiere)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No.5 in A Major, K.219
Franz Schubert: Chamber Symphony in B flat, D.960 (arr. Heribert Breuer)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

P. Kuusisto (© Chris Lee)

The beloved Orpheus Chamber Orchestra came back to Carnegie Hall after a two‑year‑long absence. It is a pity that their return coincided with the first major snowstorm of this winter, and as usual parts of the city were “slightly paralyzed” and some patrons were hesitant to leave their dwellings. Yet throughout the concert, the somewhat smallish crowd offered an unusually warm and enthusiastic reception for the musicians on stage.

The program was almost standard: first the OOMP (as my friend Jay Nordlinger refers to those works: Obligatory Opening Modern Piece), then solo concerto, and, after the intermission, a longer work, often not in its original form. Thus, the first composition on the program was the world premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Plaid x Plaid, commissioned by the Orpheus, then the Mozart Violin Concerto No.5, and finally the Schubert Chamber Symphony in B flat Major. If the reader recognizes “D.960” as Schubert’s last sonata for the piano, he is right. In its quest for presenting unusual works, Orpheus reached for yet another transcription and this one was created in 2006 by an unknown to me German conductor and composer, Heribert Breuer.

In Schubert’s oeuvre, there are numerous works that either have undergone a process of being transcribed to another medium or have almost cried to be rewritten for a larger group of instruments. To such works belongs another piano sonata, the one in C Major D.850, which the composer left unfinished and whose first two completed movements sound like they could be the orchestral reduction of a symphonic work (Klavierauszug, as it is beautifully called in German). There were Schubert’s works such as Wanderer Fantasy, transcribed by Franz Liszt into work for piano and orchestra, or the “Arpeggione” Sonata, performed not long ago by this very same Orpheus, as a work for cello solo and string accompaniment. Then there are the string quartets, the most famous of which is The Death and the Maiden, which is frequently performed by string orchestras in Gustav Mahler’s arrangement. Mr. Breuer created for himself a formidable task for not only attempting to transcribe one of the most unwieldy piano works, but limiting himself to the same eight instruments which Schubert utilized in his Octet in F Major, arguably one of his most optimistic, cheerful and sunny works.

By contrast, Sonata in B flat Major, the final in the set of three late piano sonatas, as well as his final completed composition, not only belongs to the most profound and metaphysical creations, but is a real piano piece. Thus, unlike many of Schubert’s four‑hand works which are almost ready for orchestration, the Sonata in B flat doesn’t seem to be a perfect candidate for orchestral arrangement. Yet there are numerous instances in the piano part when we can almost hear – or are able to imagine – the orchestral instruments taking over. One needs to look no further than the “cello” theme in the first movement exposition, or innumerable instances of the staccatos which would translate ideally into orchestral pizzicatos (the plucking of strings). And there would be phrases that could easily be taken over by the winds playing melodic lines. That being said, in confronting Mr. Breuer’s orchestration, the hardest task for the listener was to forget the original piano version and instead appreciate the often clever and inventive treatment in his own arrangement.

It seemed that the most difficult aspect of this orchestration, for which Orpheus rightly augmented the string section (rather than to use a single instrument to a part), lied in the limits of its resources. I believe that the use of additional instruments, such as flute, oboe and another French horn or trombone, would add immeasurably in enriching the fabric of the score. Perhaps the next time this work is performed, as I am sure it will be, the Orpheus might engage another arranger who will eschew the limits of the Octet’s scoring. Even now this listener was able to find in Mr. Breuer’s orchestration felicitous moments, as for example in the second movement Andante when one melody line is carried on by the three wind instruments, or in the 3rd movement Scherzo which as a whole was probably most successful. There, the arranger wisely differentiated the scoring of outer parts and the trio: firstly the winds accompanying strings, then in the Trio section strings accompanying the melody of winds: pretty clever!

One could do little to eradicate the overreliance on clarinet to carry upper melodic lines, and in many places there was a profusion of bass pizzicatos which became almost conspicuous. Yet what Mr. Breuer’s transcription also achieved was to scrape off the patina of profundity, deliverance of which is for many pianists their primary goal.

The Orpheus can pride itself on an abundance of the excellent instrumentalists in its ranks and this time one must mention the three superb wind players: Pavel Vinnitsky, clarinet, Frank Morelli bassoon, and Stewart Rose French horn. Nevertheless, it was not for the first time that I regretted the absence of a conductor in front of them. I am sure that Orpheus leaders know intimately all the works that they perform and generally have solid control of the score. Alas, for me in too many places the performance of the Chamber Symphony sounded well‑nigh perfunctory, the feeling of “gemütlichkeit” (amiable, affable), so essential for Viennese music, was largely absent, and matters of phrasing and articulation frequently left much to be desired. I couldn’t help but wish that just once, a conductor‑pianist such as Sir András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim, Murray Perahia or Christian Zacharias would stand in front of that esteemed ensemble and guide them through the intricacies of the score and show them its secrets better than the even the best concertmaster is able to.

Before the intermission, we heard a delightful performance of the most famous of Mozart’s five violin concerti, the A Major called “Turkish” on account of the use of the Janissary band effects and march‑like theme akin to the Rondo (Turkish March) that crowns his equally famous piano sonata, also in A Major K.331. The soloist was Pekka Kuusisto, the eminent Finnish violinist and conductor who enjoys on both continents a bourgeoning career as a conductor, soloist and recording artist. Some of the famed contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès dedicated their works to Kuusisto, but as we witnessed at Carnegie Hall he is also at home in the classical canon. Furthermore, judging from his approach to the Mozart concerto, he tries to remain close to the historically informed style: a lean, sometimes vibrato‑less sound, crisp articulation and phrasing, and, what I especially value in Mozart interpretations, adherence to stylistic adornments such as frequent use of Eingangs. These are the mini‑cadenzas which in Mozart sonatas or concertos should be exercised at fermatas (stops): in Mozart’s time, any adept musician was able to fill those open spaces with his own improvised mini‑cadenzas. Inexplicably, nowadays this skill is applied quite rarely, and I was genuinely pleased to hear someone paying attention to this important aspect of historically informed performances. As it once was a tradition, Mr. Kuusisto composed his own cadenzas for each of the three movements. They were generally quite inventive and varied. To illustrate: at the end of the 1st movement cadenza, our soloist engaged the concertmaster to finish it in duo with him. It was a very nice and uncompetitive gesture. The second movement juxtaposed sweet melodic line with a bit weird and altogether disproportionally long cadenza‑musing that would not be out of place in Schnittke or other contemporary work, but conceivably Mr. Kuusisto wanted to present himself as a wide‑ranging modern‑day soloist at home in all styles, even in the Mozart concerti.

After the nicely paced and harmonious 3rd movement Rondeau: Tempo di Menuetto with the fiery “Turkish” episode, Mr. Kuusisto returned to the stage and offered first a lengthy introduction, and then a Finnish folk melody, accompanied by a light tapping to add a little rhythmic underpinning. What a nice diversion from the traditional encore, which is a movement from a Bach partita or sonata.

As I mentioned, the concert started with the OOMP, and the author of the Tuxedo: Plaid x Plaid offered a lengthy explanation of what motivated her to write this 6 minute long score. It was inspired by white‑n‑black silkscreen by Jean‑Michel Basquiat, who in turn was interested in Black quality and Black uprising. Tuxedo was for him “a garment of quality”. But there was also a Plaid element, and from there, in Kendall’s mind it was all obvious: “plaid = Scotland = the role Scotland played in the Atlantic slave trade”. I admire the fact that London‑born and New York‑based Ms. Kendall is honest about her work, in that it is both a piece of music and a social commentary which she codes in a manner sometimes not “obvious from the first listen, but that might keep people thinking”. It made me not only “keep thinking”, but also recall that famous statement “when you think you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

Roman Markowicz



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