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Will The Real Franz Schubert Please Stand Up?

New York
Weill Recital Hall
03/20/2002 -  
Franz Schubert: Introduction, Theme and Variations; String Quintet
Maurice Ravel: Chansons madecasses

Kurt Ollmann (baritone)
St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble

If the Bach and Benda families seem confusing for a music historian to remember, their complexities pale before the dilemma of Franz Schubert. There were no less than four Franz Schuberts active musically in the nineteenth century. Franz Peter was, of course, the beloved composer. However, there was another Franz (Anton) Schubert composing at the same time. He was once sent a manuscript of Franz Peter’s incredibly moving song Erlkoenig (The Elf King) in error and was highly offended, calling the music “rubbish”. Franz Anton’s son was also named Franz and he became a composer as well. The younger Franz’ daughter, Georgine Schubert, was one of the century’s most famous sopranos, studying with Jenny Lind and Manuel Garcia. Franz Peter’s father, Franz Theodor Florian Schubert, was also a musician and taught the young composer how to play the violin. To add to the confusion there was a large family of Schuberths also active in music in Germany and Austria during the same period. Ferdinand Schubert (1794-1859) was the famous composer’s brother. He too became a composer and earned his living as a choirmaster and organist. Ferdinand was not above stealing from his more talented sibling and in fact submitted one of his compositions (the Deutsches Requiem D621) as an audition piece for a prospective position. When Ferdinand was installed in that position in the church, Franz wrote the antiphons for the Palm Sunday service (D696). Ferdinand has a long list of compositions to his credit, but the entries are tainted by his many “appropriations” of his famous brother’s work. To his credit, he did attempt tirelessly to achieve publication of many of his relation’s major creations after Franz died at the obscenely young age of 31.

After a stylistically challenged but interesting Octet last Friday and a great Great C Major with the Vienna Philharmonic on Saturday, my own private Schubertiade week continued as the core chamber ensemble of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s presented two examples of his output for small combinations (and I still have the Beaux Arts’ Piano Trio # 1 at the Metropolitan Museum on Friday’s horizon!). Two very different Franz Schuberts shared the program last evening. This overflowing fountain produced more than 1000 pieces in his 14 years of composition (even Vivaldi didn’t work at that concentrated a pace) and tonight’s recital presented a somewhat specialized offering as well as perhaps the finest of them all surrounding an exotic set of songs by Maurice Ravel.

Although Schubert was a master of many forms, the variation technique was not one of them. This ornate set of melodies based on Trockne Blumen from Die schoene Mullerin has little cohesive value, the individual permutations prettified and ornamented stepsisters of the original. The piece is molded along 18th century lines to feature the dexterity of the flutist rather than the inventiveness of the composer and never ties together the thematic material into an interesting whole. Still, it is Schubert and so the tunes are joyful and, being written for the flute, fodder for proficient whistlers. Essentially a recital piece, the variants consist mostly of endless runs and trills and, as such, were handled smartly by Elizabeth Mann, although her accompanist had some difficulty metronomically. Much more satisfying musically were the three Ravel pieces, which, like the Mallarme songs, contain some of the most daring of his harmonic writing. Africa was the symbol of magic and mystery for a Frenchman in the 1920’s and gives this colorful composer an opportunity to delve into the hidden corners of stretched and broken tonality. Kurt Ollmann was confident and expressive, although a tad shy of volume, even in this little hall.

But it was the mighty quintet that made up the meat of the evening. On this same stage a few nights ago, the Octet was not treated with the proper respect and so it was especially heartening to experience a group of such talented musicians who would recognize the profound honor of performing a piece of such magnificent import. As if the string players of St. Luke’s were not proficient enough, they invited one of the finest cellists of the world, Sadao Harada, recently departed from his longtime position as a founding member of the Tokyo Quartet, to join them as second chair. This part is hardly a “second fiddle” spot, however, and it has been the pleasure of many of the greatest players of the past century to provide this essential anchor for such a splendid vessel. The combination of the singing but lighter tone of Daire FitzGerald with the strong and incredibly rich intonation of Harada made the celli dominate the finely crafted blending of sound for this reading and this is legitimate as it is this unique tessitura which sets the Schubert apart from the other fine examples in the genre (most especially the Brahms and Dvorak) which add a second viola instead. The performance as a whole was spectacular, moments to especially savor the solemn opening of the adagio and the ebullient bounce of the scherzo (NPR listeners will recognize the theme as that of “Performance Today”). The quintet should play like a symphony (and did last evening) and is the inspiration for the thick and hugely planned chamber works of Brahms, the sonorous combination of just five instruments creating the illusion of fifty. Imagine if Schubert had lived to the age of 71 rather than 31. He would have encompassed the entire career of Schumann, interacted with the futurism of Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, and influenced Brahms in ways that one cannot even speculate about (and been enshrined in Vienna’s Central Cemetery without having to be first exhumed by Bruckner). As it is, he found the time to create a huge body of work (it is hard to think of his output as having periods, being so compact and concentrated, not to mention that his compositions from the age of 17 tower over most mature music, even of the so-called “great” composers) and, with the possible exception of his songs (after all, he essentially invented the lied and then immediately created its most shining examples), his later chamber efforts stand highest atop the absolute pinnacle of Western music. How wonderful, then, to hear perhaps the most profound of them all played in such an expert and loving manner.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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