This afternoon in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Paul Hersh presented the first Faculty Artist Series recital of the 2016–17 season. This was originally announced as a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme; but Hersh changed the programming to a selection of piano compositions for one, three, and four hands. Each of these selections was preceded by some highly informative commentary, a feature that continues to make Hersh’s performances some of the most fascinating SFCM offerings. Additional hands were provided by Hersh’s former student Hye Yeong Min (’09).
The commentary was structured around three major topics, narratives, the “sense of an ending” (a phrase Hersh may have explicitly borrowed from either literary theorist Frank Kermode or the novelist Julian Barnes, who probably lifted it from Kermode), and cooperation. The program began with the last of five piano studies that Johannes Brahms composed, a transcription of the final Chaconne movement from Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor to be played by the left hand alone. After explaining that, while myriad transcriptions of this movement had been composed for different combinations of instruments (including the one by Ferruccio Busoni for “two-hand” piano), Brahms’ version came closest to the original Bach version (since about the only thing that Brahms added were dynamic markings), Hersh wasted no time getting into narrative.
He began by explaining the overall plan of the variations on the four-measure theme. 32 variations in D minor are followed by 20 in D major, after which the music returns to D minor for another 10 variations. Hersh suggested that this was a narrative of human life, beginning with the vigorous energy of youth, maturing into a more refined middle age, and then accepting the quietude of finality. (Note that this was how that “sense of an ending” would first rear its head.)
As the Italians like to say, this may not be true; but it is a good story. That remark is not meant to be either frivolous or pejorative. As this site has already observed, the very act of listening to music must, of necessity, take the flow of time into account; and among the various categories of texts (which narrative theorists tend to call “text types”), narrative is the one category that is explicitly time-sensitive (hence the need to talk about that “sense of an ending”). Thus, while Bach’s priority may have been primarily pedagogical, even to the point of balancing the number of variations, identifying a narrative framework can be a very useful way through which the attentive listener can not only experience but also appreciate the flow of time as having an underlying logic.
This afternoon the result of suggesting a narrative framework resulted in one of the most coherent accounts of Bach’s chaconne provided by any performer or ensemble, regardless of instrumentation. Hersh had clearly established his own logic for both the flow of time and the termination of that flow. By sharing that logic through his introductory remarks, the listener was better equipped to negotiate that flow and thus was confronted with just how much considered and attentive performance can bring to music that is far more than marks on paper with staff lines.
At this point Hersh departed from the printed program sheet to include a short addition, “Evening Song,” the last work in Robert Schumann’s Opus 85 set of twelve four-hand piano compositions “for young and old children.” Because the upper part has only a single melodic line, this was the “three-hand” portion of the program. Hersh may have chosen this piece as another example of intense dramatism that reaches far beyond the notational representation of brief and simple gestures. Curiously enough, the sensitivity that both Hersh and Min (providing the “third hand”) brought to this almost microscopic composition conveyed one of the most difficult of dramatic effects, making time stand still. (This “temporal illusion” can be encountered frequently in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Schumann has several of these moments, but not as many.) Thus, “Evening Song” is almost an “anti-narrative,” suspending the listener’s sense of time passing, even if only briefly.
This short piece provided a transition to the far more extensive four-hand fantasia in F minor (D. 940), which Franz Schubert composed during the first four months of 1828, the last year of his life. This was where the theme of the program shifted from narrative to cooperation. This is music in which the two pianists must be aware of each other, with respect to not only the music they are playing but also the physical challenge of sharing the keyboard and the pedals. It is also music whose overall structure involves the recurrence of the material that is presented at the very beginning, but not in a manner that can easily be classified as rondo form. As Hersh put it, D. 940 has a “form unto itself,” which has more to do with evolving transformations (my phrase, not Hersh’s) than with sections that can be neatly labeled with capital letters.
Most interesting was how Hersh’s introductory remarks involved calling out structural properties on both small and large scales. This need to keep track of those properties on multiple scales requires that both pianists need to be of “multiple minds” about what they are doing; but they also have to establish what amounts to a shared consciousness. Hersh also observed that, even though it was not a four-hand transcription of music composed for orchestra or string quartet, D. 940 was probably intended as music for a personal living room, rather than a concert hall. Nevertheless, the piece is definitely a serious challenge; and it is only through the performance of skilled musicians that one can appreciate just how much Schubert managed to pack into a composition whose intentions may have been “domestic.” Hersh and Min were definitely such musicians, providing an enlightening and stirring account of how productive Schubert was in his final year.