Friday, February 20, 2009

The "Trout" Sound

"Sound" seems to be the major topic this week at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. That was certainly the case when Menahem Pressler conducted his Master Class on Tuesday; and it was also the focus of attention in the all-Debussy Master Class led by Paul Roberts yesterday afternoon. Still, this is probably the subtlest of the "physical features" of any musical experience; and that subtlety continues to elude even the most sophisticated recording equipment. Therefore, it was a real delight to discover some real gems of "sound itself" in Pressler's Chamber Music Masters concert at the Conservatory.

Franz Schubert's A major piano quintet (D. 667, the "Trout") may well be one of the most-recorded pieces of chamber music. It attracts attention not only for its set of variations on the song for which it is named but also for its unconventional orchestration: piano, violin, viola, cello, and bass. One does not hear the double bass very often in chamber music; and, between the insensitivity of audio equipment and a tendency of the engineers to focus on the piano (which really does not need any reinforcement), most people with recordings of this quintet would be hard pressed to say they hear the bass at all. In terms of the overall structure of the composition with regard to both harmony and counterpoint, one might almost call the bass part an obbligato, as I did with the string parts in the Haydn trio Pressler coached on Tuesday. As with those string parts, the "obligatory" role of the bass is to introduce an element of color that is all but absent from the chamber music repertoire but would have been familiar in Schubert's time. I am referring to the tendency to use the bass as the "continuo" for more popular dance forms, played for entertainment, usually by a small string ensemble. The bass provides a solo voice that serves as the harmonic foundation in a sound significantly differentiated from the rest of the ensemble, not just by register but by its characteristic claim on the "real estate" of the audio spectrum.

Naturally, this effect only "works" if the bass is audible; and this can be a problem in "live" performance as well as in recordings. However, it was clear from Pressler's Master Class that balance was very much on his mind this week; and the result was what may well be the most satisfying performance of the "Trout" I have ever heard. Pressler, faculty violinist Ian Swensen, and three students found their balance with the opening chord and kept it through the burst of energy concluding the final Allegro guisto movement. The result, even with the obbligato nature of the bass, was that effect of an intimate conversation, which always pleases me in a performance and which is more a matter of course in jazz (where the bass tends to get more respect, particularly with the legacy of bass masters such as Charles Mingus).

The Schubert quintet was preceded by Johannes Brahms' first piano trio, the Opus 8 in B major. As the low opus number indicates, the work was published in his early twenties; but it was almost entirely overhauled 35 years later. In a letter to Clara Schumann while working on the revision, Brahms described the original version as "wild" and a source of "childish amusement;" and Brahms listeners are usually familiar with his tendency to sprawl, particularly in his earlier works. By the time of this revision, Brahms was beginning to explore the design and expressiveness of his far more compact piano compositions; and their is a tightness and focus to the later version that is now performed. There is also now an Adagio that almost foreshadows his later exploration of the intermezzo form, not only structurally but also as an expression of a particular kind of stillness that reflects back to several of the high points of Schubert's vocal, chamber, and solo piano music. Once again, balance of was of the essence, particularly in this third movement and in the final Allegro in which an initially nebulous statement of thematic material gradually acquires more and more focus until the entire trio ends in crystal clarity.

In many respects Schubert and Brahms are the two "monuments" that begin and conclude the chamber music repertoire of the nineteenth century. As a result their works are familiar to most attendees of chamber music recitals. Nevertheless, each of the compositions in both repertoires can always be approached in new ways, leading us down new paths of discovery in works we thought we knew. Pressler revealed those paths for both of these composers at the Conservatory last night.

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