in: Reviews

May 28, 2013

Ashburnham Witnesses Stumacher Début

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Eric Stumacher at Streicher (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Eric Stumacher at Streicher (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

If the music in last week’s recital [here] on the Frederick Collection’s 28th Spring Concert season sounded as though it had been written for the piano the performer chose, then this week’s recital went one step further.  Apple Hill Chamber Players’s founder, executive and artistic director and pianist for 35 years, Eric Stumacher played music by Johannes Brahms on the Collection’s 1871 Streicher, which is quite similar to one Brahms had in his studio for the last 25 years of his life.

Stumacher opened with a fairly early work, the dazzling and monumental Variations [25] and Fugue on a Theme by Handel [an air in his harpsichord suite No. 1 that had five variations in its own score], Op. 24 composed in 1861, devoting the balance of the afternoon to Brahms’s last three published works for piano: Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118, and Vier Klavierstücke, Op 119.

The Handel Variations, like all such sets, are challenging to play. While they are coherent in that the same theme is treated throughout, they are also disjointed because the transitions between the individual variations cannot always be smooth.  They have the feel of an exercise, a compositional challenge to be met, rather than of a polished architecturally structured or cyclical creation like a sonata movement, for example.  As with the 20 pieces that comprise Brahms’ last piano works, there is considerable internal variety in the treatment of the theme and in the dynamics, and there are some enchanting effects, such as the bell ringing near the conclusion, which sounds infinitely purer and more authentic on this Streicher than it ever could on a Steinway, that also help make it appealing.

The entire performance was impressive and magisterial. Although Stumacher used scores, it seemed that he became progressively more and more comfortable and relaxed with the instrument as the recital progressed.  On an early instrument nuances can be produced with little physical effort.  It struck me that Stumacher was trying too hard in the Handel Variations—playing as if he were at the keyboard of a modern Steinway. By the second half, he had figured out how the instrument worked and got better tone when his effort was reduced, almost eliminated.  It was a real pleasure to be able to hear these works just as the composer must have heard them, but I might have chosen at least one more traditionally structured work, a sonata, for example, or the Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854, actually shorter than the Handel Variations), as the earlier work, to offer a greater variety in the overall program.

More on the instrument:

The 7’10” Frederick instrument, with a walnut case, fretwork (vine pattern with central lyre matching the pedal lyre) music stand, and standard ornate nameplate saying: “J.B. Streicher & Sohn in Wien, K. K. [Königliche Kaiserliche (Royal Imperial)] Hof & Kammer-piano forte-Fabrikant [Court and Chamber piano Manufacturer]” on the fallboard, has a keyboard compass of seven octaves (84 keys) and two pedals: una corda and sustaining.  It is a wooden frame instrument with two iron bracing bars attached to the metal string plate and is parallel strung, with leather covered hammers and “Viennese” single escapement action, essentially the same type of construction as the instruments of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s time 50 years earlier.  This gives a warmer and more transparent sound, with differentiation of tone color among the lower, middle, and upper registers, so while Brahms knew and played Bechsteins, Blüthners, and Steinways, all instruments with cast iron frames, this is credibly identical to the instrument at which he composed, and which he preferred.

More on the music:

Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118, and Vier Klavierstücke, Op 119, which, together with the Sieben Fantasien, Op. 116, formed the 20 short pieces that Brahms composed in 1891-1893, publishing two sets in 1892 and two in 1893, but the publications do not in any way represent the order of composition

These pieces show the influences of Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner with occasional faint echoes of works by those predecessors.  They are “character pieces” but some have an ABA structure.  Most of them are intermezzos, but there are three capriccios (in Op. 116, not played), a ballade, Op. 118, No. 3, a romance, Op. 118, No. 5, and a rhapsody, Op. 119, No. 6, that brings the 20 to a close, so there is some variety, and, of course, there is considerable internal variety among the intermezzos.

Stumacher explained that Op. 117 is actually a sort of three-part lullaby, based on a Scottish triptych of poems, and it quotes a Scottish lullaby melody – Brahms himself spoke of this.  Stumacher chose to play op. 119 to close the first half, a decision whose reasoning he explained, but for me, it seemed wrong, and, indeed, the audience was not certain when the end of the recital had been reached because Op. 118, No. 6 that closed it is an intermezzo – the word itself suggests something in the middle rather than an end.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to counter the dismissive words found in this review about Brahms’ Handel Variations. If the reviewer had stopped at calling the music “dazzling and monumental,” everything would have been copacetic. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop, curiously labeling advantages as faults. Yes, these variations certainly are disjointed. They are disjointed just like the variations of the Goldbergs or the slow movement of Haydn opus 76 no.3 are disjointed. That is because they are supposed to be. Any set of variations worth its salt has contrasting movements. A “smooth transition” is exactly what you don’t want. A smooth transition in a set of variations is about as exciting as (paraphrasing S.J. Perelman) a rainy afternoon in Rochester. Sunsets are memorable because pink is side by side with chartreuse. Sets of variations, drawn out by a master, are memorable because a Siciliano may abut music of storm and strife, or a waltz may find itself sitting uneasily next to a fugue. As for this music being adumbrative of an exercise: what’s the problem with that? Western art music abounds with sublime stuff that has pedagogical intent. The wonder of a Bach invention, or a passacaglia by Biber is that these pieces are not only surpassingly beautiful, they are also lessons. You get aesthetic jollies and learn something about counterpoint or variations into the bargain. A real deal. The Handel Variations are indeed dazzling and monumental. Let’s stop it there.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — June 1, 2013 at 8:31 pm

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