Part I of “Schubert—The Late Great Sonatas” with veteran Seymour Lipkin at Boston’s Gardner Museum on Sunday, November 1 very much resembled a daguerreotype. That radiation of a very small range of wave lengths of a brownish hue in those early photographs suggested Lipkin’s monochromatic playing of two late Schubert sonatas, Sonata in G Major, D. 894, “Fantasy” and Sonata in C minor, D. 958.
At the Gardner, the picture of a youthful Schubert had been taken not by a camera but by a piano, and like a 19th-century photograph, the instrument’s sound came muted, restrained. Still too young to have experienced much of life’s journey, but alert to a changing musical language, Schubert captured his musical musings on longer and longer adventures, musical journeys that Lipkin re-enlivened to the last notes — in his own way.
Neither colorful pianism nor physicality could be found in the playing. What is more, it hardly could be said that emotion was at the heart of this performance. What figured into all of the playing during the unusual afternoon concert — full to the brim with listeners — might simply be called “musicality.” Schubert’s language and syntax, melodic turns and harmonic moves, modulations, cadences and forms received full honors. There was lightness of touch, sometimes strikingly delicate moves on the keys that you had to believe came from Lipkin’s love of this music and of the piano, this, as much as from his ever so bright sense of clarity, transparency and “musical” expression.
This was not introverted playing by any means. It was playing that mapped out, often in the most direct and innocent of ways, the very musical adventure the early Romantic composer could not resist. Sometimes, as can be expected, every move of a youthful adventure is not quite as exciting for the beholder as it is for the presenter. Sonata in G Major tipped the scales in musicality, with Sonata in c minor coming in second.
There could not have been a more finely articulated and contoured opening of the G Major. With the following passage, Lipkin’s pianississimo (ppp) completely realized the step back the music had to take. And his was a real ppp; he was not affecting, as he could pull off the most exquisitely quiet sounds you will hear on a Steinway. In fact, during most of the program, Lipkin leaned on the quieter side, choosing lightness of touch and lightness of expression over outward dramatic interplay.
A most intriguing moment occurred in the third movement in the Trio of the Menuetto. Again marked ppp (and what was that Schubert up to?), a regular eight-bar idea remained nearly mute in a folk-like stance twice around. Next came a crescendo (marked in the score) that Lipkin again transformed into a daguerreotype-like move by having us see, as directly and clearly as one might imagine, a musical idea emerging as central object in the foreground, then the music returning to a very, very soft musical background. What an experience! Again, this was all in brown, now even earthy hues, an impression of both warmth and great distinctness. The fourth movement saluted musicality with but the faintest of folksiness.
The longer and longer Sonata in C minor found a light sweetness, always finding itself airborne. Noticeable fluffs sprinkling his performance were, for me, welcome, as they brought a human quality to the picture. Lipkin’s photographs of Schubert will, I know, be memorable ones, as no one I have heard has captured quite the same glimpses of a most intelligently and sensitively (empathically?) conceived Schubertian adventure. This afternoon at the Gardner Museum, Seymour Lipkin’s musicality defied complexity by turning Schubert into nothing less than “musical moments.”
Lipkin returns to the Gardner Museum with Part II of The Late Great Sonatas on Sunday, December 15 at 1:30. You do not want to miss it.