Friday, June 5, 2009

The Spirit of the Schubertiad

I found it interesting that both Joshua Kosman (in the San Francisco Chronicle) and I (on both tended to treat Julia Fischer's performance of Franz Schubert's D. 438 rondo as somewhat of an afterthought in the context of the rest of the evening. Having focused on those contributions to the program that had drawn on the final year of Schubert's life, I concluded with the following text:

Finally, Schubert was represented by more than his final year. Julia Fischer performed his 1816 rondo in A major for violin and strings (D. 438). This is more "traditional" Schubert; and grace was the key operative element in Fisher's performance. To this end she was well supported by Thomas' decision to conduct a highly-reduced string ensemble. The positive energy between Fisher and this group was particularly emphasized by her attention equally divided between Thomas on the podium and Alexander Barantschik in the concertmaster's chair. A similar spirit of intimacy emerged in the second rondo that Thomas performed with Bronfman in the pre-concert recital, D. 608 in D major from 1818.

Having posted my own account, I could then take Kosman's final paragraph strictly on its own terms:

The evening's only anomaly came at the beginning, with a clear, crisp and unmemorable account of Schubert's Rondo in A for Violin and Strings. If there is anything in this piece aside from tuneful charm - anything that would have connected it to the evening's overarching themes - Thomas and violinist Julia Fischer seemed to have mislaid it.

There was clearly a disagreement here; but it was a "surface structure" disagreement seemed based on a shared "deep structure" view of the priorities of the overall program for the evening.

I found myself thinking about this comparison this morning while reading the following text from Yehudi Menuhin's memoir, Unfinished Journey:

Perhaps what we have lost is the courage to appreciate the violin at something less than its most exalted. I don't view the eclipse of salon music with satisfaction, nor rejoice in the discrediting of the style which purveyed it. Not long ago I played at Pamplona, Sarasate's native town in northwest Spain, and seeing the honor in which he was held—squares, buildings, institutions bore his name—I concluded that here was sufficient commitment to light-heartedness to launch a Concours Sarasate, directed to presenting the violin as a salon instrument, in contrast to the general run of existing concours, which increasingly stress size, in solidity of works, big tone, huge—rather than elegant—technique.

I suspect this passage leapt out at me because, regardless of my personal feelings about salon music, Pablo de Sarasate, or Menuhin, his use of "elegant" came close to what I was trying to get at in invoking the noun "grace." From this point of view, I could then shift my attention from the salon of Sarasate's day to the spirit of the Schubertiad, which had recently been invoked so effectively in a concert that Paul Hersh had arranged at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I could then reckon that, while a string orchestra would probably not fit in any setting for a Schubertiad, there were probably several middle-class "domestic" spaces that could accommodate that "highly-reduced" ensemble that had performed at Davies. Thus, like the pre-concert offerings of four-hand piano rondos, Fischer's offering was best suited for the elegant (or graceful, if you prefer) setting of the Schubertiad.

Clearly, the physical setting of Davies Symphony Hall did little to evoke the spirit of such Schubertiads; but the same could be said of the Recital Hall at the Conservatory, in which Hersh had presented his offering. In both settings we, as audience, had to assume some level of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief." Since I was sitting just off the aisle three rows from the edge of the stage, I did not find this particularly difficult. For most of the Davies audience, however, it could easily have been more problematic!

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