in: Reviews

January 16, 2017

Filial Approach to Schumann and Bartok

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Miriam Fried, violin, and her son Jonathan Biss, piano delivered flawless Schumann and Bartók in a Sunday recital at Calderwood Hall that complemented the one they offered last weekend.

Biss has recorded a number of different works by Robert Schumann, whose work he cherishes deeply, thus it was especially reassuring to hear him play Schumann’s last composition for piano, Gesänge der Frühe, op. 133, composed in 1853, three years before the composer died. It is still fashionable today, and misguided, to regard Schumann’s last works as tragic evidence of a deteriorated mind and withdrawn personality; yet we now recognize that among them is much evidence of complete mastery and rare beauty that emerges visionary and still confident from behind the curtain of advancing age. In that category stand the Gesänge der Frühe (Morning Songs), a cycle of five short pieces in an overall D major, with some subtle unifying motives distributed here and there between them. I have heard only one other pianist play Gesänge der Frühe live, and that was Maurizio Pollini in Vienna in 1980. Rarely do pianists take up this calm, inner-directed set; most prefer the passions of the great works that Schumann wrote while still in his 20s: Carnaval, the Davidsbündler, Kreisleriana, and the Phantasie. These pianistic farewells spring from the same vein as the Bunte Blätter and the Waldscenen, but strike one as even more closely refined, with their chorale-like ambience and avoidance of triumphalism.  Biss’s relaxed but thoroughly expressive manner completely satisfied, and his concentration appeared total.

If Béla Bartók himself preferred his Second Violin Sonata (1922) to the slightly earlier First, it is not hard to understand why. The second is concise where the first was sprawling, and no less intense, and there is often more of a partnership where the piano and violin are evenly matched; last week, hearing the First, one might have thought that Bartók meant for the two instruments to be constantly fighting each other, concerto-fashion, where in the Second each assists the other over tightropes. The two movements are more continuous and less sectional; the dialogue includes passages of exploratory writing, with flautando glissandi, high harmonics, and col legno that Bartók wanted to try out, with obvious success. There was even a charming passage of plucked chords that not incongruously suggested the guitar-like Sérénade in Debussy’s Cello Sonata. The harmonic language is still formative, but more complex than in the First Sonata; the folksong-like melodic lines that emerged in parallel thirds in the First Sonata are more likely to present in parallel seconds in this one; and the frantically animated csárdás style of the First Sonata makes a generous reappearance in the Second. But one also hears adumbrations in this sonata of the clear chordal harmony of the Music for strings, percussion and celesta of fourteen years later. Fried and Biss gave a performance that was both vigorous and crystalline; what was especially gratifying was the constant and fearless partnership, as though making music at home for intimate friends.

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 121 (1851), is heard much less than its predescessor. The first movement sprawls at 13 minutes, but with unfailing melodic drive; Fried and Biss showed a fine flexibility of expressive tempi. The second movement, Sehr lebhaft, is a fast scherzo with two different trios, as in the Piano Quintet and the Second Symphony. The third movement is a lullaby-like G major, 3/4, with a very attractive melody in variation form but with momentary flashbacks to the scherzo style of the second movement. The finale, formally speaking, is weaker than the others, with a persistent rhythmic motive and uniformity of accompanimental texture that threaten overuse — this is a general aspect of Schumann’s style — but the momentum of melody carries the day.

Calderwood Hall had hardly an empty seat anywhere on its four floors, and the audience listened intently, jumping to their feet at the end. That brought forth a short encore: the first of Schumann’s Three Romances; we heard it last week and gratefully received it again—as we did the entire concert.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Two splendid reviews from Mark DeVoto on two wonderful concerts. It is no surprise that Miriam Fried and Jonathan Biss could enter the rather disparate worlds of Schumann and Bartók with equal success. Both Bartók sonatas are intricate works which are often difficult to follow, especially the Sonata #1 with its lengthy first movement. I have always had an affinity for the later Schumann works, including the Lieder and chamber pieces. Indeed, they are strange, sometimes rambling, but not inferior which often has been thought. Can they reflect the mental distress that afflicted Schumann in these years? We can only surmise what direction he would have gone. As to the performance of these works, there was no phrase delivered by these artists that was not without intent,
    thoughtful and moving. I have never heard the Gesänge der Frühe in concert, only Maurizio Pollini’s recording. Mr. Biss played the opening hymn with beautifully balanced chords with the organ-like harmonies, marred only by a crying child who was fortunately removed by her mother. More sonatas by Ms. Fried and Mr. Biss.

    Comment by Terry Decima — January 17, 2017 at 10:32 am

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