Pianist Sergey Schepkin launched the sixth season of Glissando at First Church Boston last night with Schubert’s Eight Impromptus, nicely introduced by the short Allegretto in C Minor, D.915, which Schubert composed in 1827, a month after Beethoven’s death. By starting with that commemoration, Schepkin boldly set the context for the subsrquent set which, Schepkin implied, even if they utilize earlier musical ideas and material, pay homage to Beethoven not only by looking back at Beethoven’s monumental contribution but by asking the question: “Where do we go from here?” Schepkin employed dramatic dynamics to establish that the Allegretto already sketches the combustion of fierceness and tenderness that will make up the effervescent content of the Impromptus. Orphaned but liberated, grateful to Beethoven but confident in his own resources of suffering and vitality, Schubert forged forth with the first set of Impromptus in May, and then with the second, more mature and even more daring set of Impromptus in December.
Schepkin managed to revive the sheer excitement that Schubert himself experienced. By exploiting the virtuosity of the pieces to probe their content rather than display his own prowess, Schepkin gave an entirely new passionate edge to Schubert’s sound, which made the melodious tenderness all the more lyrical and boyish. To my ear, the highlight of the first set last night was Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat Major. Schepkin gave it new substance by emphasizing the complex tempi that enrich its étude-like character, from its airy, liquid, rippling beauty to its most towering, irresistible but also infernal, irreversible momentum. Dramatic, thrilling, raw, tender, ecstatic, vulnerable — Schepkin packed all of Schubert’s intimate and fractious journey of artistic inspiration and illness, friendship, and loneliness, into the compact work. “There is no one who understands the pain or joy of others!” Schubert wrote in his notebook. Last night, Schepkin made us hear Schubert’s pain and joy, closely entangled, and crafted into beautiful sound thanks to the very same “musical understanding” that Schubert credited himself for possessing and for giving him the power to transform his emotions into song.
The highlight of the second set of Impromptus was undoubtedly Schubert’s own provocative and experimental highlight, namely Impromptu No. 4 in F Minor, marked Allegro scherzando. In a singularly novel reading, Schepkin gave it a complex Mephistopheles-Faustian character, full of dangerous sprites invading us through shadowy tenebrae, yet sparkling and brilliant, frenetic, and unnerving. Did Schepkin mean to imply that this last Impromptu heralds Schubert’s full assumption of Beethoven’s teaching, but also Schubert’s liberation from his predecessor and bold setting forth into a new landscape of impressionism and adventure, pictorial scale, and color explosion beyond Europe? As we know from a letter to his friend Schober, Schubert was enamored of the tales of James Fenimore Cooper, medicating himself in his illness with visions of primeval forests and Mohican braves, rushing torrents and New World deerslayers. In probing Schubert’s liberating scherzando, Schepkin exploited the hints of hemiola rhythm, the trilled dissonances, and the four-bar waves of the trio section to create a sound of boyish mischief, unsupervised and reckless, but also a sound of tremendous ecstatic power and wildness.
Stay tuned and buckled-up! The next Glissando concert, on January 26, 2024, will continue this exploration and revitalizing of Schubert with Divertissement à la Hongroise.
Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.