“Schubert’s dynamics,” asserts the Isabelle Huppert character in Michael Haneke‘s gut-wrenching new film The Piano Teacher, “range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft.” Her student-victim is struggling with the slow movement of the A-major Sonata, one of the three extraordinary works in the genre that Schubert created during his last year. In a month that has also seen the reissue of Milos Forman’s Amadeus with 20 more minutes of psychobabbling gobbledygook tacked onto that mendacious epic, Haneke‘s film stands out, among other reasons, for its success in telling the truth about serious music. And when it comes to detailing the workings of that particular slow movement, the script is dead-on accurate.
By coincidence — or perhaps not — Murray Perahia’s piano recital at Royce Hall two weeks ago had the same sonata as its centerpiece, and his journey through the slow movement accomplished in notes and tone color and dynamics exactly what the words expressed in the film. That slow movement, which follows the forthright, larger-than-life statements that begin the sonata, oozes into our awareness with an elegiac, disturbed theme of few but poignant notes that do, indeed, whisper of tragedy beyond words. But then the tragedy deepens and Schubert screams aloud. Himself on the brink of death, he escorts us, too, toward that brink; if ever a solo piano has painted a vision of infernal regions, it is here. But then Schubert pulls us back and, in a couple of bars of just single notes spaced out, almost but not quite restores the quietude of the movement‘s opening. As the elegiac melody resumes, the turmoil of that interruption remains as a distant rumble; it chastens our memories as we return to reality. (A similar sequence of events, by the way, takes place in Schubert’s C-major String Quintet, another miraculous work from that same final year.)
Perahia is a superb romantic pianist; on records and in concert he still grows in depth and generosity of spirit. His latest Sony disc, completing his set of the Bach keyboard concertos, offers everything you need to know about the meaning of eloquence. His concert at Royce — Beethoven‘s laconic, ill-tempered C-minor Variations at the start, Chopin full of stardust, including a lavish assortment of encores, at the end — drew a large and happy crowd, despite the fact that Alfred Brendel was performing, a few miles away at the Music Center, the same night.
By good fortune — for the local pianomanes, at least — Brendel repeated his program two nights later, and in a better venue, the intimate Barclay Theater at UC Irvine. He, too, played variations, the astonishing “Diabelli” set that Beethoven fashioned simultaneously with the Ninth Symphony. Perhaps “played” is too slight a word; what Brendel accomplished that night was a closer penetration than I can remember ever hearing into Beethoven’s clear intent in this hourlong extravaganza, his sardonic glee in his own power to transform Diabelli‘s insipid little waltz-tune into the scaffolding for a huge, profound musical structure.
There’s nothing else in music quite like the Diabellis, with their blend of haunting, stirring musical inventions into a compelling demonstration of the pure joy of composition. The very fact of its stop-and-go form — 33 separate dissertations on the power within that dopey little theme, culminating in a dazzling double fugue that then subsides into a deliciously anticlimactic, smiling epilogue — makes its expressive impact the more remarkable.
All of this became revelatory last week in the totally immersed figure of Brendel, hunched over his piano as if trying to swallow it whole, fudging a note here and there — as he‘s entitled — but delivering Beethoven’s own fantasizing vivid and intense. True, Brendel‘s much-publicized agonies over audience coughing and similar misbehavior — which he has now even celebrated by writing a poem about it — can make listeners at his concerts as nervous as he claims to be. Optimally silent to fulfill his ideal, an audience would then have to countenance his own repertory of moans ’n‘ groans. It works both ways.
Magnus Lindberg came to town recently, with his wonderfully convoluted Cello Concerto that fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen had conducted at Ojai in 1999 (with the amazing Anssi Karttunen as soloist), and a new work, Parada. That splendid music also appears next month on a Sony disc — led by Salonen but with London’s Philharmonia — with the Cello Concerto and two other orchestral works.
Lindberg, the same age as Salonen plus three days, grows into a world-class musical figure, strengthening his country‘s newly minted musical hegemony (with Kaija Saariaho to complete the triumvirate). From his early work called Kraft — with its musicians scattered around the playing area and its array of junk percussion — I might not have predicted his growth to such expressive mastery. He now tells me that Kraft was merely his shot across the bow, the kind of sensation-seeking music young composers have to write to proclaim their arrival on the scene. “There could never be a Kraft II,” he claims, “any more than there could ever be a Rite of Spring II.”
Parada is part of a trilogy of works bearing Spanish names — Cantigas, on the new Sony disc, and Feria, previously recorded, complete the set. Like Debussy’s Iberia, Lindberg says, the parts can be performed separately or as a suite lasting about 40 minutes. They aren‘t all that Spanish in sound or harmony, however. Whatever its derivation, Parada is a gorgeous 12 minutes of dark, resonant orchestral sound, beginning and ending with a progression (or “parade,” if you wish) of oozing, dusky harmonies. Here and there Stravinsky pops in; so does Debussy.
Alongside the Lindberg works at the Philharmonic there was Brahms — like chocolate sauce over herring. People perform those two early serenades, I suppose, because they’re Brahms — certainly not because they‘re any good. The A-major Serenade, which Salonen performed, is scored without violins and puts the winds up front, and it quacks a lot; you’d think that Brahms might have looked at a little Mozart to learn some basic wind usage. The performance was jaunty enough, I suppose, but Salonen‘s warm and flexible reading of the “Haydn” Variations, at the end, had a lot more to say. So, of course, did the music.