in: Reviews

February 19, 2013

Making Round the Cube

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In the afternoon of February 17th, the Sunday Concert Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented Schubert: the Sonata in D Major (D. 850) and Schwanengesang. Benjamin Hochman (piano) played the sonata with both great fidelity to the score and great rhythmic and expressive freedom. The second movement, with its sweetly halting phrases and complicated syncopations, was particularly lovely. His grace and precision of touch were equally well suited to the wit and jokes of the Scherzo, as well as to the twirling variations of the final Rondo. At the risk of sounding like the earliest reviewers of Chopin’s performances in Vienna, I will mention that his fortes were not actually loud—I had the impression that he was more interested in cultivating a delicate, whispering pp than a mighty ff.

After a brief pause, Hochman returned to the piano with Randall Scarlata (baritone). Before beginning the cycle, Scarlata addressed the audience. Among other things he mentioned his interest in performing lieder for the first time in the round, and that he would enjoy experimenting theatrically with the unusual space of the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall. He also discussed the structural peculiarities of Schwanengesang. Unlike Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s earlier song cycles, the lyrics of Schwanengesang were taken from the works of three different poets. Much, indeed, of what we know as Schwanengesang (including the title) was the invention of the publisher as he attempted to put together enough unrelated material after Schubert died to cash in on the popularity of the earlier song cycles. Thus, the cycle includes seven poems of Rellstab’s, six of Heine’s, and one by Seidl (the final song, “Die Taubenpost” was rumored to have been the last song Schubert composed). There is some evidence that Schubert may have intended to make a full cycle out of the works of Heine, but, if so, he seems never to have completed it (these being his only settings of that poet).

Curiously, Schubert copied the songs in a different order from Heine’s original sequence, and the manuscript order was retained in the publication, as well as in most performances to this day. Hochman and Scarlata, however, chose to restore Heine’s order, so the second half of the cycle went not in the familiar order of

“Der Atlas”
“Ihr Bild”
“Das Fischermädchen”
“Die Stadt”
“Am Meer”
“Der Doppelgänger”

but rather

“Der Atlas”
“Das Fischermädchen”
“Am Meer”
“Die Stadt”
“Ihr Bild”
“Der Doppelgänger”

The close juxtaposition of the two ghostliest songs of the set, “Ihr Bild,” in which a portrait of the beloved comes to life, with “Der Doppelgänger,” in which the singer sees his ill-omened and grief-stricken double in the moonlight, was very striking indeed.

Scarlata’s smooth voice and impeccable enunciation paired well with Hochman’s delicacy. The resonant low notes of “In der Ferne” were very satisfyingly sung. The appropriately un-nerving colors of “Der Doppelganger” made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And Scarlata did indeed project in the round, as he promised, moving and rotating with the dramatic turns of the music so that no audience member remained neglected for long. Combining this solution to the distribution of the audience with his expressivity, he successfully reached the prodigious height of the hall and of Schubert’s Art. In the midst of the blowing snow and darkening slush that has been plaguing Boston streets, this concert was an intimate delight.

Tamar Hestrin Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard.

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