Friday, April 25, 2008

Another Neglected American Composer (and much much more)

We are coming to the end of the term at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and I am trying to catch up on opportunities to hear some of the compositions explored in recent master classes now played in their entirety. Last night it was Robert Schumann's Opus 47 piano quartet, whose first movement had been coached by Peter Frankl. Given Schumann's ongoing interest in integrating the multiple movements of an extended structure into a "unified package," this is a work that gains more from being taken as a whole, rather than a focused view on a single movement. Indeed, I would go a step further and propose that one could make an excellent listening experience out of a program that would couple Opus 47 with the Opus 44 piano quintet (as the Benda Musicians did in their PRICE-LES$ CD of Schumann chamber music), since each takes experimental steps in a different direction and both prepare us for the more finished strategy that Schumann applied to his Opus 120 D minor symphony a little less than ten years later. Opus 44 can be heard as an acknowledgement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's final K. 551 symphony ("Jupiter"), whose concluding movement climaxes with its thematic material coming together in a single closely-knit contrapuntal network; and Schumann's fabric adds the thread of the theme that began the opening Allegro brillante movement. However, while Opus 44 climaxes by looking back to the very beginning, Opus 47 experiments with looking forward.

In this case the integration resides in the link between the third Andante cantabile movement and the following Vivace Finale. Drawing upon an extended melody line for the cello, the Andante cantabile has that same heartbreaking quality that Joel Krosnick had identified when he coached the Andante movement from Johannes Brahms' Opus 60 piano quartet, thus reinforcing the heavy influence that Schumann must have had on this movement (including its position as third, rather than second, of the four movements). Schumann's experiment, however, involved linking the coda gesture of the Andante cantabile (which, by its very context, is saturated with reflective melancholy) with the burst of energy in the opening theme of the Finale. One might almost take this as evidence that Eusebius (in the third movement) and Florestan (in the final movement) are, indeed, the same person wrapped into Schumann's body; but that does not make it a sign of dysfunctional bipolarity. This is Schumann in his early thirties, accepting his psyche for what it is and letting it lead him down unexplored paths, which means it also constitutes a critical part of the nineteenth-century repertoire that would shape how we still listen to music today.

Taking that as my own attempt to link to the present, I was also pleased that last night's program included a duo for viola and cello by Walter Piston. Piston is another example of an American composer who received too little attention in his own time and was too often dismissed as a dry academic. (Since he had written a full complement of textbooks for the study of composition and was a Harvard Professor, one could appreciate the origins of such dismissal!) There was certainly nothing to dismiss about his duo, beginning with his unique ear for the colors that emerge when viola and cello are combined without any intervening higher instruments. My only regret is that I approached this performance without any preparation, which meant that I could do little more than grasp at the most salient surface-level features, such as Piston's use of pizzicato to mark structural boundaries. I suspect there was as much ingenuity in Piston's contrapuntal fabric as I have come to love in the work of Mozart and Schumann, but I shall need several more opportunities to listen to this work before writing about such matters from an informed position.

This makes for another link, since the Piston duo was preceded by Mozart's K. 465 string quartet ("Dissonant"). This is one of the quartets that Mozart wrote for Joseph Haydn and which Haydn himself played (along with Mozart). The nickname applies only to the Adagio introduction to the first movement, but it is another source for reflection on how ideas evolve into the future. One has to wonder whether or not Mozart's little experiment with taking a repeated C natural and forging a winding trail through many tonal ambiguities before coming to a sustained dominant G in the 22nd measure planted a seed in Haydn's mind that he would then cultivate when faced with the problem of representing that state of chaos that preceded the opening text of Genesis for his Schöpfung oratorio. The "trick" in performing this Adagio is to lead the ear confidently along that trail; and it may well have been the confidence that these particular student performers brought to the very beginning of the evening that encouraged and sustained the listener from Mozart to Piston to the final bars of the Schumann piano quartet.

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