Seattle-based keyboardist Byron Schenkman traveled to the Second Church in Newton on Saturday night with a recital on the resident Johann Baptiste Streicher piano. In the last half of the 19th century Brahms preferred Streichers; he made a primitive recording on one in 1889.
While the piano didn’t look terribly different from modern examples, the difference in sound was striking. Rather than striving for uniformity, the builder accepted and/or created three distinct registers. The bass sounded dark, full and loud, with a heavy, plummy attack that put me in mind of dropping a large rock into a deep pool. The subtler, even understated midrange conveyed soft attacks and an atmospheric, hazy quality. The high end rang out brightly, though without brilliance, not quite balancing out the bass but projecting easily over the middle.
Schenkman began with the Beethoven Pathetique, reasoning that this work appeared around the time we call “Romantic”, and the Streicher is nothing if not a Romantic-era piano. However, something in the combination of composer, interpreter and instrument quite didn’t quite agree. The slow movement fared best, Schenkman giving the melody an understated nobility that spoke eloquently more than it sang. In the outer movements, Beethoven stormed aplenty, though the overall effect was lumpy and uneven. Too often the bass dominated, and frenetic activity in the mid-range felt congested. A few times notes failed to sound, as if the touch or travel wasn’t quite as it should be. It felt awkward, and for a moment one worried that the instrument was perhaps just a little out of adjustment.
When Schumann’s Kinderszenen followed. everything relaxed—the music, the instrument, and the audience. The 13 brief childhood scenes have their moments of both rest and agitation, though where Beethoven often seems to be trying to make his anxiety and unrest concrete in the performer’s body and instrument, Schumann’s engages in indirection. Schenkman briefly noted that most 20-century pianists disregard Schumann’s metronome markings; presumably he followed them, and many of the pieces moved rapidly indeed. While a pianist friend of mine found the tempi too fast, I rather enjoyed the way this kept the music from descending into any form of sentimentality. Some might prefer a “Traumerei” that depicts dreaming through a vaselined lens; in Schenkman’s hands Schumann’s dreams emerged as if through clear eyes.
Things improved further in the second half. Unsurprisingly, two late Brahms selections (the Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 6; and the Rhapsody, Op. 119, No. 4) showed the instrument at its best. The Intermezzo begins with a single melody right in the upper-middle of the keyboard: the tone quality of this range when played solo was remarkable, each note carrying a faint halo or aura about it. The Rhapsody, by contrast, starts with big six- and seven-note chords. If this texture never sounded quite right in Beethoven, here it projected clear and powerful, well-voiced, even eloquent.
The highlight of the evening was the Nocturne, Op. 6, No. 2 by Clara Wieck Schumann. While I am familiar with the arc of Clara’s life from Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, I had not yet encountered her music in live performance. If this piece is representative, she should be heard much more often. Cast in a simple ABA form, the outer sections consist of a singing 6/8 melody of unusual personality, expressed in passing chromaticism and sudden outbursts. If you knew nothing of the personal history of the composers, you might think it more likely this writer was married to Chopin than to Robert Schumann. The brief middle section is a bit odd, a pompous march in dotted rhythms that doesn’t quite fit. A sudden stuttering of repeated notes (11 of them, I found when I checked the score) dispelled any idea that the action of the instrument was defective: soft and round-edged, while simultaneously distinct, they conveyed a sense of cardiac fluttering.
A small circle of chairs surrounded the piano, which was placed against a side wall, to help with projection. To suggest intimacy Schenkman festooned it with candles, and there was no other lighting on the performer. Of course he performed from memory; but with the lighting provided, he really had no choice, though one has to acknowledge that keyboardists have read scores by candlelight for centuries.
Unfortunately, the concert was popular enough that much of the audience sat in pews, which forced one to either turn 90 degrees to glimpse the player, or to simply stare forward and concentrate on the sounds. The second option was not a bad one: on the evidence of this evening, Schenkman interprets with subtlety, attending with precision and clarity to the markings, eschewing any temptation to use self-aggrandizement. There is some rhythmic idiosyncrasy to his playing, perhaps attributable to the fact that is he also an accomplished harpsichordist, or perhaps because he has worked so long with Baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews, who is certainly unafraid of idiosyncrasy. It is a cool approach for the most part. He clearly adores Clara Schumann, and his heart occasionally peeked out from his sleeve during the Nocturne, hinting at a depth of sentiment the more touching for its restraint. Those made curious about the Streicher should be pleased to learn that Schenkman will be recording on it in the fall.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.