Saturday, March 18, 2017

Jonathan Biss Concludes his “Late Style” Series with Intense Schubert

Last night in Herbst Theatre pianist Jonathan Biss presented the fourth and final concert in his Late Style series of recitals for the 2016–2017 season of San Francisco Performances (SFP). Like the first concert in the series, the program was devoted to a single composer, this time Franz Schubert. In the verbal introductions that he prepares for his Faculty Artist Series recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Paul Hersh frequently cites how prodigiously creative Schubert was during the last twelve months of his life; and he has even conducted entire seminars focused exclusively on that final year.

In that context two pieces might seem like too modest a sampling to be representative of Schubert’s “late style;” but that last year was also one in which he ventured into working with longer and longer durations for a single composition. As a result, Biss could prepare a program with only one composition on either side of the intermission to present his perspective on Schubert in this series of concerts. The first half was devoted to the D. 959 piano sonata in A major, one of three pieces of prodigious duration, all of which were composed in what must have been an almost death-defying frenzy of activity during the single month of September in 1928. (Schubert died that year on November 19.) For the second half Biss was joined by tenor Mark Padmore for a performance of the D. 957 collection of fourteen songs on texts by three different poets, which was not published until about half a year after Schubert’s death, given the title Schwanengesang (swan song) by publisher Tobias Haslinger. This may have been a modest sample of Schubert’s productivity, but it definitely made the case that he was outdoing himself not only during the final year of his life but also in the last few months of that year.

In that context Biss took a highly subjective approach to interpreting D.959 with powerfully chilling results. To explain that approach, I would like to begin by reflecting on a memorable Schubert performance from my more distant past. Back in 1983 I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy play the D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasia in C major. I came away thinking that this was a score that took the listener to the brink of madness and found it somewhat reassuring that Ashkenazy never went over that brink. Last night Biss appeared to take the stance that September of 1828 was a far more desperate time for Schubert; and that “frenzy of activity” may have been a product of his hearing the whispers of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Erlking in his own ear. As a result Biss fearlessly chose to cross that brink that Ashkenazy had judiciously avoided.

The price for that bold move was an execution whose technical precision was not always right on the mark. However, Biss’ decision to prioritize rhetorical extremes over disciplined dexterity did much to clarify the transitional nature of D. 959. After all, Schubert’s logical successor in this domain was Robert Schumann, much of whose most powerful musical effects were products of his own bipolar mental condition. (Those who have attended SFP events for some time probably recall that Biss’ last project for SFP was based on Schumann’s music.) D. 959 goes a long way towards preparing the listener for the even more radical shifts between extremes that are encountered in Schumann’s music, particularly for solo piano.

It is worth noting, however, that if abandon was the operative concept in Biss’ interpretation of D. 959, one could still sense the presence of some overseeing control. Biss clearly knew that the full duration of this 40-minute sonata could not be simply a matter of one shock after another. Consistent with the wisdom of Pierre Boulez, he knew how to prioritize his climaxes, making sure that there was only one “highest peak” in each movement. He also knew how to pace the energy level so as not to wear down listener attention. After all, the “punch line” of this sonata is that we end up exactly where we started; and Biss knew exactly how to make sure that the attentive listener got the point.

In introducing D. 957, Padmore made it a point to explain that Schwanengesang was not Schubert’s own title. He then suggested that the German noun “Sehnsucht” might serve as a title because of the unifying theme it establishes. (Whether Schubert collected those fourteen texts with such a theme in mind is anyone’s guess.) Henry-Louis de La Grange made much of this noun in his magisterial biography of Gustav Mahler, dwelling on the difficulty of providing a satisfactory English translation. Richard Wigmore’s English translations of the song texts tended to opt for “longing.” The word actually has its own Wikipedia page, which explains its compound nature. “Sehnen” is the more direct German noun for longing; but the suffix is derived from another German noun, “Siechtum,” which is a lingering illness.

“Sehnsucht” thus captures a sense of longing in which all is not quite right; and, in many ways, that is the prevailing mood of the D. 957 songs. For this performance technical precision was much more in order, particularly since such a complex emotional disposition required a firm communicative bond between vocalist and pianist. That bond was established in the very opening measures of the first song, in which a murmuring brook delivers a message of love; and it was sustained through the coda of the final song, in which “Sehnsucht” provides the final mood, even if it is not the final word.

Nevertheless, there remains the question of whether there is some overall plan to these fourteen songs or whether each offers its own perspective on a shared concept. Padmore tended to opt for the latter, dealing with each song as an event unto itself, rather than as a stage along a longer-range journey. Thus, in contrast to Biss’ solo performance, D. 957 emerged as a series of songs, many of which rose to pretty much the same level of intense climax. Now, to be fair, Padmore can be positively bone-chilling when he delivers such a climax; but after a while the listener was inclined to worry more about whether his strength would sustain, rather than whether all those climaxes had to be so similar in intensity.

In any event both selections on the program definitely made a case for the significance of the concept of “late style” in Schubert’s compositional output; and the presentation of both of those selections definitely sealed the deal while also providing an effective “sense of an ending” to the full scope of Biss’ project.

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