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Schubert and Wyner Played with Mozart on First


Yehudi Wyner (file photo)
Yehudi Wyner (file photo)

Eight-ninths of Jordan Hall 900 seats filled last night for New England Conservatory’s “First Monday” concert—a refreshing event in every way, for its fine assembly of current faculty, alumni, and old friends.

The Sonata in D major for two pianos, K. 448, written by Mozart when he was 25, is his only completed large work for two pianos, apart from the Concerto in E-flat major, K. 365, which of course is with orchestra. With two pianos there is always the possibility of an antiphony—first one idea in one instrument, and then the matching or repeated idea in answer by the other, and there is plenty of such dialogue, and even some well-concealed canonic writing, in this vivacious work. Mozart had already written a D major sonata for one piano with four hands in 1772 (K. 381), and the later work fulfills ideas of promise first put forth in the earlier, but with much greater confidence. The first two movements are both sonata forms; the third is a sonata-rondo with three themes (including a second theme beginning in the dominant minor, an unusual tactic but charming). Leslie Amper and Randall Hodgkinson played with complete authority and unity, but especially with joy that radiated throughout the performance. They have obviously been at home with this music for a long time, and now I’d like to hear them play the four-hand sonatas (one piano) K. 497 and 521, works which IMHO are the most inspired music Mozart ever wrote for the keyboard.

The 85-years-old Yehudi Wyner, recently recovered from a hospital stay, was on hand and definitely in youthful spirits to hear his West of the Moon for six instruments, an equally spirited work composed just two years ago. Before this Boston premiere, Laurence Lesser mentioned a commission for the Cygnus Ensemble and a connection to Scandinavian myths (perhaps Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling, reborn as a swan?). The more obvious connections were with Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire on the one hand, and the Serenade on the other, especially for the abundance of repeated notes. The other performers were Paul Biss, violin, of the NEC faculty, and four alumnae/i: Sooyun Kim, flute; Amanda Hardy, oboe; Eden MacAdam-Somer, mandolin; and Adam Levin, guitar. West of the Moon runs continuously in three broad sections, fast-slow-fast, with the first fast section containing a short slow episode. All of these alternated well-blended ensembles with broadly melodic passages for paired instruments—a melody in octaves for violin and cello, or with violin-mandolin matching guitar-cello. Unlike the heroic guitar, the high-register mandolin was hard to hear much of the time. The “slow movement” featured expressive guitar chords with a distinct suggestion of jazz harmony; the guitar even had the last word in the piece, with a prominent dominant-thirteenth chord.

The rest of the program was dedicated to late Schubert, beginning with “Der Winterabend” (winter evening), an expansive song on a text by Karl Gottfried von Leitner with eerie psychological connections both to Müller’s Winterreise and Heine’s “Der Doppelgänger.” Randall Scarlata, baritone, who teaches at SUNY Stony Brook and has worked extensively in Vienna, projected beautifully clear tone and sound that seemed perfect for this song. He followed it with a Swedish folksong, “Se solen sjunker,” which has been identified as the source of the slow-movement melody in Schubert’s E-flat Piano Trio. Schubert’s version is related but different, but both include the repeated octave leap, G to G, on the word “Farväl” (farewell). Cameron Stowe played the gentle piano accompaniment.

The E-flat Major Piano Trio, op. 100, D 929, was originally published in an abbreviated version —Schubert struck out 99 bars from the finale—in October 1828 by Probst of Leipzig, who paid the composer, we are told, “less than half a pound.” One assumes that this one-time cachet didn’t burn a hole in Schubert’s pocket before his death just one month later. This Trio is a long work even in the short version, and last night’s performance had the 99 deleted bars restored, clocking in the whole at 57 minutes with all repeats, at tempi that can only be called comfortable. This certainly is “heavenly length.” The first movement alone of the E-flat Major Trio (634 bars) is almost exactly 20 minutes, and the Development includes no less than three repetitions of the Third Theme when two, or maybe even one, would surely have sufficed. And yet every instant of this performance by Lesser and Hodgkinson and violinist Miriam Fried, sounded as full of might as it was full of love; one wouldn’t have wanted it shortened by an iota. It was also fascinating to hear those 99 previously unfamiliar measures. If this grateful performance presented Schubert at his most formally expansive, it also underlined the harmonically and tonally esoteric richness that we are just beginning to understand.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Please let’s acknowledge the remarkable treasure that NEC is providing almost on a daily basis. Very few other cities in the world (!) can boast if this level of classical music performances — and usually for free.

    Comment by rs2010 — December 9, 2015 at 9:56 pm

  2. I agree completely with the previous comment. This was a glorious concert. I am an amateur pianist, I have played the Schubert Eb Trio, though with the cut, I’m sorry to admit, and have had a few lessons and chamber-music coachings with Randy Hodgkinson. He never ceases to amaze me. I’ve followed his career for a long time and watched the process of a hugely talented youngster who could do pretty much anything he liked at the piano mature into a wonderful artist to be treasured, who can still do pretty much anything he likes at the piano.

    The Schubert is no mean feat for ordinary mortals like me. But Randy made it look and sound easy. And since the technical problems were not an issue for him, he could bring his fabulous musicality to bear. I have rarely heard the opening of the last movement played with such simple charm (certainly Menahem Pressler is among the elite in that regard) or that whole movement played with such beautiful, unforced sound. And, of course, I had to laugh to myself as he tore through the notorious almost-scale passages (the “almost” is what makes them difficult, because the fingering is different than scales) that give the rest of us fits with little, if any, tempo compromise.

    Going back to the previous comment, a way to express our gratitude to NEC for bringing the work of people like Randy, Miriam Fried, Lawrence Lesser, Randall Scarlata and the great Yehudi Wyner is to send them a donation before the end of the year.

    Comment by Don Allen — December 10, 2015 at 12:54 pm

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