Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In the Shadow of Beethoven and Schiff

If, as I have remarked several times, Johannes Brahms often felt as if he had to contend with the long shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven, then I have to wonder if Anne-Sophie Mutter felt that the shadow that András Schiff cast on Sunday evening in Davies Symphony Hall was hovering over her all-Brahms (including the encores) recital there last night. If so, then it could not have been a pleasant feeling. Schiff has distinguished the first three recitals in his Beethoven cycle with performances in which every note counts for its full measure of clarity and nuance. Accompanied by Lambert Orkis, Mutter performed the three Brahms violin sonatas in what felt like a fog of muddle, which barely lifted only briefly in the high-energy moments of the final Opus 108 sonata following the intermission. Most frustrating was the fact that neither of the first two sonatas, which preceded the intermission, had any real sense of a beginning (to play on the title of one of Frank Kermode's books). In both cases there was no "preparatory silence," which is problematic because both of these sonatas have very subtle beginnings; and finding oneself in medias res before realizing that the first movement has begun does not make for a very satisfying (or informative) listening experience. Even more problematic was the thin quality of Mutter's tone, which could never cut through that fog of the overall spirit of the performance.

If I were to attempt a diagnosis of last night's malady, I would probably try to attribute it to lack of breath. While her tone may have been thin, Mutter's bow work exhibited an almost awesome continuity. One could barely sense when the bow reversed direction without visual feedback. This is an extraordinary technical device, but it overlooks the extent to which bowing is responsible for phrasing and is therefore indicated explicitly in Brahms' scores. It is then through phrasing that the performer can find and appropriate the very "breath" of each musical "utterance;" and it is through that "breath" that one passes from the technicalities of execution to the rhetoric of performance. In a composer like Brahms, that rhetoric tends to be highly emotional, as was the case when Joel Krosnick paid such attention to the heartbreaking quality of the principal theme of the Andante from Brahms' Opus 60 piano quartet. Brahms began work on the first of his violin sonatas shortly after completing this quartet, and it is no exaggeration to say that the entire sonata is shot through with heartbreak. The first movement is marked Vivace ma non troppo but is so non troppo that it displays the same mournful introspection that follows in the Adagio movement. Similarly, the final Allegro molto moderato movement is so moderato that is serves as a pensive reflection (at one point literally) of the material that preceded it. To deny all this emotion is to deprive the sonata of its very raison d'être, yet with her apparent insensitivity to the ways in which emotion "speaks" through breath control, Mutter seemed to be doing just that.

Unfortunately, none of this may matter very much when one has to sustain a grueling touring schedule of performances to sold-out houses, all of the massive capacity of Davies. I was close enough to the stage that I had to wonder just what people in the more distant reaches of the hall were actually hearing. Whatever it was, their consistent standing ovations (and occasional cheers) made it clear that they were more than satisfied. However, this raises another point of comparison with Schiff.

Having now heard three of his recitals, it has become clear to me that Schiff approaches the performance of all the Beethoven sonatas in a cycle as a means by which we in the audience can come to learn more about "the man behind the legendary composer" and be better listeners to all of the music from that particular period by virtue of our experience. (Actually, given his interest in playing Bach partitas as encores, Schiff probably wants to extend the scope of that period beyond Beethoven's time.) None of this came across in Mutter's approach to the Brahms violin sonatas (which, admittedly, come from a more limited period of Brahms' life). I am not even sure there was any particular logic behind her choice to perform Opus 100 before Opus 78. All that seemed to matter was that, taken together, the three sonatas provide enough material to fill an evening's program, which means that we, as listeners, were left with more of a technical accomplishment than a listening experience. Thus, while one should not overly criticize audiences (where would performers be without them?), the enthusiasm of this particular audience may have been closer to that of sports fans enjoying some impressive maneuver than that of music lovers cultivating greater appreciation of a favorite composer.

Things perked up a bit with the encores. In a more scholarly setting the perfect encore would have been the Scherzo movement of the "F. A. E." sonata, a work commissioned by Joseph Joachim for the collaborative efforts of Brahms along with Robert Schumann (second and fourth movements) and Albert Dietrich (opening movement). (One of these days I want to hear these four movements performed in the order of a coherent sonata, just because that is how they were published, even if it is an object lesson in why such collaborations do not work very well!) Last night, however, was far from a "scholarly setting;" so we got the violin arrangements of three of the Hungarian Dances (7, 1, and 2), all of which were offered with liberal servings of improvisatory schmaltz to compensate for any lack of Gypsy soul. Mutter then gently told her audience, "Genug!," with a dry-eyed arrangement of "Guten Abend, gut Nacht," the "Wiegenlied" from the Opus 49 collection of five songs (better known as "Brahms' Lullaby"), sending us all out into a night of chill winds, where Mother Nature seemed to be mustering more emotion than anything I had experienced over the preceding two hours!

No comments: