A Chamber Music Festival Dedicated to Schubert
Alice Tully Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135
Franz Schubert: Winterreise, D. 911, Op. 89
Nikolay Borchev (baritone), Wu Han (piano), Orion String Quartet: Daniel and Todd Philips (violins), Steven Tenenbom (viola), Timothy Eddy (cello)
W. Han, N. Borchev (© Cherylynn Tsushima)
The venerable Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center organized during the last weeks of January and first weeks of February 2023 a chamber music festival dedicated to Schubert and the first three of the festival events represented a magnificent performance level, offering some unquestionable masterpieces juxtaposed with less frequently performed though still very much worthwhile compositions.
The goal of this Festival is to present Schubert’s œuvre both in context of his very short‑lived career as a composer, the influence of other masters on his own writing and later his own influence on composers for whom he became a model. The events were carefully planned, showcased several aspects of Schubert’s creativity and featured some wonderful soloists and ensembles. Some programs were introduced by ever‑ebullient Wu Han, artistic co‑director of CMS who, needless to say, took part in several of the performances.
The first of the five programs concentrated on Schubert’s greatest idol, Ludwig van Beethoven, in whose footsteps the young composer travelled the streets of Vienna. Beethoven’s death in 1827, barely a year earlier than his own, shattered Schubert greatly. In this program, two late works of each composer were presented: Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 135 and Schubert’s last and most dramatic song cycle Winterreise. What one witnessed in this program was a different mindset of two composers reaching the ends of their lives, neither of which was without troubles, difficulties and obstacles. Yet, much older Beethoven, perhaps much more aware of his inevitable end, was able to embrace, as Wu Han observed, a whimsical or even comical outlook and instill in his last essay in the form of a string quartet, a sense of triumph, determination and perhaps even mockery, so typical for him.
For Schubert, it seems, the thought of death was never very far from him, even in the works far preceding his early demise. In his cycle Winterreise, with the help of poetry of Wilhelm Müller, Schubert creates a musical–and many believe, autobiographical–picture of desolation and despair, then the descent into madness and in the end acceptance of miserable, desolate future. What Müller wrote in his verses, Schubert adopted as his own emotional journey.
I very much appreciated a short description by David Finckel, Artistic Co‑Director of the CMS. Comparing Schubert and Beethoven, he said:
“(Unlike Beethoven) Schubert was not able to bring himself to that kind of inner peace. My theory, and one that many others hold, is that he read his own life into these poems by Wilhelm Müller. At the very end of Winterreise, the speaker of the poems meets a hurdy‑gurdy player who’s standing barefoot on the ice with his empty little collection plate, cranking the hurdy‑gurdy. The text leaves it open as to whether he speaks to the man out loud or is merely mulling things over, but he basically asks, “Can I go with you into this snowy night? And will you crank your hurdy‑gurdy to accompany my songs?” How much more biographical can it get, with Schubert at the end of his life, thinking who’s going to sing my songs? The end of this thing is extremely powerful.”
Beethoven is able to create in Op. 135 one of his funniest, madcap scherzos (the 2nd movement) where for the first 40 measure the listener is not able to determine or find a downbeat and where the skipping, floating in the high register first violin part is accompanied by the obsessive, crazy ostinato of other three instruments. Then there is this cryptic note in the finale: “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss” (the difficult resolution) and annotation: “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) followed by “Es muss sein” (It must be!). What is the most plausible explanation? But the joyful development of the “Es muss sein” motif ensues and the Finale ends on a victorious note.
There is nothing victorious or triumphant in the Schubert cycle infused with gloominess and despair. The first song “Gute Nacht” introduces us to the scorned protagonist, who is refused the hand of his beloved. In despair, he visits her home to leave on the gate only two words: good night. And there starts the melancholic, later demented descend-in-twenty-four-songs of the love‑torn wanderer. In his last cycle, Schubert reached the apogee of voice-piano partnership, in which the piano illustrates the characters, their state of mind, physical setting or sometimes the nature. The difficulty lies not in executing the right notes, for there are tons of Schubert works far more difficult for the pianist, but rather to make the piano comment on the vocal phrase. There is in the German language a word “Gemütlichkeit” which means tenderness and that is sometimes difficult to achieve in life let alone at the keyboard. Thus, the first piano entrance should probably not sound as a brisk walk on Broadway to make it on time to the concert, and that, alas, was what otherwise excellent Wu Han offered us. To be fair: over the years of listening to this cycle I encountered only a handful of pianists, among formidable ones, who, in my mind, made that piano part sound as caring, concerned, loving. And though Wu Han was a really a wonderful partner at the piano, throughout the cycle I missed that warmth, that sense of “Gemütlichkeit”: hard to explain but easy to feel.
The baritone Nikolay Borchev, making his CMS debut, was born in Belarus but his education and career took place in Germany, thus his delivery of Müller’s text was exemplary. His voice is on the light side, in timbre almost bordering on tenor. Sometimes I had a feeling that the voice was strained as if trying hard to get to the top: in the songs with agitated piano part such as “Erstarrung” (Frozen Stiff), the listener felt a problem with balance between the voice and piano. Generally, Borchev’s interpretations were meticulous and scrupulous, without much drama or dependence on extra‑musical or downright theatrical means, as certain others employ. I had a feeling that his narration was geared toward showing what happens next, rather than how does it happen. I couldn’t help be moved by the music, for I almost always am, but only in few songs it was the interpretation which moved me.
A word about the texts: for this concert the CMS prepared a special booklet, very painstakingly prepared. It differ from the traditional break on a page: left side German, right side English. It employed much better, in my opinion, the option of listing German text and English translation right beneath, allowing the listener/reader to follow the narration much more efficiently. For that occasion, a special edition of English translations was prepared by the esteemed photographer, pianist, poet Christian Steiner, whose intimate knowledge of music and poetry, combined with his native German, produced remarkable results in translations that were both precise and colorful. The editors took extra care to make sure there was sufficient time to turn pages and artists waited patiently between the songs for the rustle of turning pages to subside. In addition, we were given a chance to enjoy whimsical black‑and‑white photos from ArtistLed collection.
Orion Quartet (© Cherylynn Tsushima)
As I indicated, before we heard this heart‑wrenching, winter‑stimulated gloomy and then piercingly reflective cycle, CMS wisely juxtaposed it with the last string quartet of Beethoven, one in the sunny key of F Major Op. 135. In that work its performers, members of the Orion Quartet, were well known for decades not only the audiences of CMS but to many New Yorkers. It was a part of farewell, as the Orion Quartet is going to disband this coming season. Their performance of Beethoven’s last work proved once again their instrumental excellence and deeply affecting knowledge of this work. There will be listeners for whom each of the quartets, especially the late ones, will have one dream-interpretation. Orion’s one brought to my mind my favorite, now also disbanded Alban Berg Quartet, which should be considered a huge compliment. The four Orion players were in an excellent form both from the technical point of view and interpretative skills. There are some fiendishly uncomfortable moments in that quartet, where the intonation sometimes suffers, but that evening the accuracy of all four was exemplary and nowhere more than in the 2nd movement Vivace, with its obsessive ostinatos and violin soaring high with its syncopated tune. There is also richness to their sound as well as tonal beauty, exemplified in the lament of the 3rd movement Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo. In the outer movements, there was virtuosity, perfection of ensemble, unity of purpose and palpable enthusiasm. Not a bad trait for an ensemble that has performed together for four decades.
It was announced from the stage by Ms. Wu Han that two wonderful quartets: Emerson and Orion, will disband at the end of this concert season, but before that we will still have a chance to catch them during a series of their farewell performances.