Twinkle, Twinkle . . .
There is no music for piano, large-scale or small, quite like the G-major Sonata of Franz Schubert. Its first sounds tease your imagination: What instrument could Schubert possibly have had in mind, in October 1826, capable of producing the ethereal, meditative sonorities at the edge of silence that begin this piece — an instrument that, furthermore, would rise in fury moments later to renounce those harmonies with sustained outbursts, which must surely have intimidated the ears of the time? A few blocks away from Schubert’s humble studio, in the same Vienna at about the same time, Ludwig van Beethoven had also, in his “Hammerklavier” and other sonatas, explored another whole new range of piano sound. Schubert’s accomplishment, the daring of his invention in this one amazing sonata, is little less remarkable. He would compose three more great piano sonatas, all in 1828, the final year of his tragically shortened life; none was more adventuresome than this noble work of two years before.
Schubert himself was no piano master, and most of his writing for the instrument leans toward the ordinary. It is in this one work, this strange, willful amalgam of solemnity and giddiness, which would make its way into public acceptance far more slowly than the acclaimed late works of Beethoven, that he sets out to explore a new piano territory, and does so enchantingly. “It is right and proper,” proclaimed the Vienna Arts Journal, September 29, 1827, “to rank this work among the good pianoforte compositions that by no means aim at being mere dancing lessons for the fingers.” Lost in a hushed, dark landscape of whispered harmonies and understated bits of tunes, you meet a Schubert strange, mysterious and wonderful in unsuspected new ways. Further surprises — some astounding in their violence, some simply disarming — await around every turn. At the end, nearly 50 minutes later if the performer has observed all the prescribed repeats, there comes a final, smiling, exquisite rush of harmony that would not be out of place in Debussy, and you find yourselves sharing that smile.
Radu Lupu, who ended his Schumann-Schubert recital at Disney Hall last week with this G-major Sonata, honored all of Schubert’s repeats, but not all of the smile. I confess to being spoiled beyond redemption in the matter of this work, going back to Easter Sunday, 1948: Artur Schnabel performing in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Schnabel had done more than any other pianist to restore Schubert’s large-scale works to public awareness, and from a seat onstage that afternoon I could watch the twinkle in Schubert’s miraculous modulations (G to E-flat to C at the drop of a pinkie) play out across the great musician’s face. I wait for that twinkle whenever the G-major Sonata is on the bill; I hear it in Mitsuko Uchida’s recording. There was a detectable twinkle that night in Lupu’s performance of Schumann’s Waldszenen (but not in his Humoreske, which I found dull beyond rescue), and not in the Schubert.
The Philharmonic’s five-year Shostakovich survey ended with nary a twinkle: the Symphony No. 13 in January, a gigantic outburst for dark voices compounded out of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s bitter anti-everything poetry, and No. 14 last week, equally long but for modest forces, linking death-tinged poetry not so much sardonic as directly tragic. (No. 15, the actual final work in the series, had been performed earlier in the season.) It has been a distinguished project, the more so since Esa-Pekka Salonen’s personal feelings on several of the works — including the Fifth Symphony, by some distance the most popular — were not exactly a secret. He originally announced that he would conduct the entire series, but then thought better. “Thinking better,” I guess, would include taking a good, hard look at, say, Nos. 11 and 12 — which did receive good performances, but in others’ hands.
No. 13, which was led by James Conlon, sets the Yevtushenko poetry about the Nazi massacre of the Jewish populace at Babi Yar and further thoughts on Soviet racism. On the first night, it was preceded by one of the Philharmonic’s “First Nights” minidramas, wherein actors from outside and orchestra members acted out a 30-or-so-minute biz about Shostakovich and Yevtushenko being harassed by Soviet cultural delegates and the performance of the work itself threatened. There are several of these entertainments buried like land mines through the season. (The next, on April 7, concerns Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which, come to think of it, probably does need all the help it can get.) I don’t think I am alone in finding them just a tad patronizing. I can read program notes, and attend the Philharmonic’s pre-concert talks (which are good most of the time). Minitheatricals, however eloquent several of the orchestra’s sturdy players turn out to be, are an unnecessary burden. Be that as it may, the performance under Conlon was taut and dark and nicely lit from within by the young baritone Nmon Ford, who replaced the scheduled soloist.
No. 14 is a problem work, and worth the effort. Having Mahler on your mind helps: The deep, solemn opening might have fallen from the sketches from the Mahler 10th; the poems themselves share the mood of the Kindertotenlieder. The sparse scoring — strings, percussion and celesta as in Bartók’s great work, but with more prominence given to the death-rattle percussion — enforces careful listening. I was glad that the pre-concert entertainment this time included a Shostakovich string quartet (No. 14); it made for good ear training. The two soloists were baritone Matthias Goerne, who is familiar, and mezzo-soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, who is not but who is a superb, rich-voiced tragic singer whom I would love to hear in any dozen operatic roles.
Also on the program, and not insignificant, was Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, the “Drumroll,” one of the most adventurous and brilliantly scored of the 12 “London” Symphonies. We haven’t heard enough Haydn from Salonen lately; it makes for a superb matchup. Something about the edge in Haydn’s humor — the way, in this work, that the finale builds its theme on the repeating figure in the horns, and the back-and-forth major-minor in the slow-movement variations — exactly works in Salonen’s hands, and always has. No. 14 was a valuable experience, I suppose, but it was the Haydn that rode home with me in my head, and remains today.