Somebody had the good idea to initiate a series of Sunday-morning chamber concerts at the idyllic John Anson Ford Amphitheater. It's the right time of the day, and of the week, to let our ears be wooed by the subtle and loving tones of this kind of music. Management provides an overhead canopy – two huge parachutes, actually – to mitigate the sun's rays. There's a buffet brunch, a little pricey if truth be known and a little hard to manage in the absence of trays, but I've known worse. Somebody also had the far-less-good idea, however, to amplify the music; the two opening works at last week's concert – trios by Haydn and Dvorak played by pianist Christopher O'Riley, violinist Andrew Dawes and cellist Paul Katz – were sent thundering through the ravine with all the power of the Rolling Stones, with the cello drowning out everything else. Fortunately, the air at intermission was full of complaint, and it reached the proper authorities. Schubert's E-flat Trio, the final work, was wafted crowdward at something closer to its proper volume. Chalk up a rare but resounding victory for audience activism. One concert remains, on September 6.
That Schubert trio – one of his few large-scale works that became known and admired during his lifetime – rolls on for nearly an hour. It can't be hurried; the players last Sunday got that right. Given the heat of the day, they were wise to forgo the repeats in the first and last movements; otherwise we might still be there (but happily so). No music I care to discuss makes greater demands on its listeners' patience, or rewards it so handsomely. The other works on Sunday morning's program – the famous Haydn trio that includes the “Gypsy” Rondo and Dvorak's less-known F-minor Trio with its gorgeous slow movement – were models of concision next to the Schubert, but it was the latter score that seemed to flow out of the sylvan surroundings that make the Ford such a precious place for music.
Schubert composed his two big piano trios almost simultaneously – in late 1827, less than a year before his death – and yet the two are remarkably dissimilar: the B-flat with its honeyed endearments, the E-flat with its astonishing shifts from giggles
to grandeur. Only the Beethoven “Archduke,” among works in this medium, looms taller; Schubert must have learned from that work how great a range of emotion, how many dramatic shifts and surprises, could be wrung from just three instruments. Its range of trickery – above all, its way of affecting an air of utmost innocence as it flops arrogantly from one clearly established key to some distant harmonic region half a planet away – remains astonishing after 170 years. Schubert's last months, as we are often told, produced a legacy of large works – three piano sonatas, the C-major String Quintet, the Mass in E flat, the F-minor Fantasy and the tantalizing outlines of a symphony that seems to peer far into music's future (expertly filled in by Brian Newbould and recorded as “Symphony No. 10”) – whose greatness and variety constantly baffle and delight. Every one of these works, furthermore, is totally different from its contemporaries; it would be impossible to predict the style and shape of, say, any one of those piano sonatas from any other in the set.
The E-flat Trio, for example, is the only one of these works that experiments with the notion of unifying a work of several finite movements by quoting material from one movement in the next. Composers after Schubert did this all the time, proclaiming that the Romantic ideal in music favored unity over variety. Robert Schumann, who anointed himself the avatar of Romanticism, used this Schubert trio as a template for one of his own large-scale works, the E-flat Piano Quintet.
These are good times for Schubert. The 1998-99 brochure for MaryAnn Bonino's “Historic Sites” series of chamber concerts is at hand, promising both this E-flat Trio and another vast, late Schubert work full of amazing inventions – the G-major String Quartet – in a setting, the Doheny Mansion rotunda, that could have been designed with that kind of music in mind. Meanwhile, some recent discs encourage hopes that we may once again be in a golden age of lieder singing.
Hyperion's Schubert Edition, a complete sweep through the songs – including works for vocal ensemble, part songs, and also including alternative versions and some repertory duplications justified in context – has attained its 30th volume. The discs come with fat booklets full of analytical information about the songs themselves and general essays on aspects of Schubert's life and style, all the labor (of love, obviously) of Graham Johnson, who is also the pianist throughout. It's a project, in other words, based on the premise that there are still people out there willing to allot full attention to great music, and who can be made interested in what they're hearing beyond the notes themselves. That, I fear, may be a dangerous premise these days, but it's also the one that keeps me going.
Disc No. 25, released earlier this year, contains Ian Bostridge's heartbreaking singing of the cycle Die schone Mullerin: music and musician, you'd swear, fashioned from the same bolt of lightning. Bostridge's career only took wing four years ago; his voice is, above all, flexible – the sound of an oboe, the soul of a clarinet. It wraps itself around a melody and disappears into it, and we are left with an essence, of an artistry overpowering yet invisible. As the ultimate seal of heavenly approval, the disc also includes Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, about whose singing 40 years ago I might have written some of those words. Now he appears as speaker, reading some of the Wilhelm Muller poems that Schubert did not include in his cycle.
On disc No. 30, Matthias Goerne sings Schubert's other cycle, Die Winterreise, with the soul of a clarinet in the roar of a volcano. Goerne was here last season, in an evening of chilling Hanns Eisler songs (which he has now recorded for London). His Schubert is also chilling, in a manner different from that of Bostridge. As the latter draws the tragedy of the young miller tight around him, Goerne's forsaken lover engulfs us in the larger-than-life enormity of his tragedy. I would not abandon my Aksel Schiotz Schone Mullerin or my Hans Hotter Winterreise or my 5-foot shelf of Fischer-Dieskau's Schubert; yet both these new discs, and the singers who made them, seem to me essential.