Saturday, August 19, 2017

Vardanega Returns to Old First with an All-Schubert Program

Pianist Audrey Vardanega made her debut about ten years ago when, at the age of eleven, she appeared as a soloist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. She then made her debut with the Midsummer Mozart Festival three years later at the age of fourteen, making her the youngest soloist in the history of the Festival. When not doing solo concerto work on piano, she could be found in the ensemble’s string section; and, at that time, she was also well into her studies in composition, which she had begun at the age of six.

She is now a senior in Political Science at Columbia University, preparing a Senior Thesis on the politics of the performance of classical music. This past February she was one of six pianists selected by Jonathan Biss for a Carnegie Hall Workshop exploring the late piano works of Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. Last night she made her third appearance in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Presbyterian Church. The first two were duo recitals with cellist Nathan Chan and violinist Kenneth Renshaw, respectively, both with a major focus on Brahms sonatas. Last night’s program shifted attention to Schubert with both solo and duo performances and particular attention to the final year of that composer’s life.

Her solo selection was the D. 960 sonata in B-flat major. This was not Biss’ choice when he presented the all-Schubert program in his Late Style series for San Francisco Performances this past March, for which he played D. 959 in A major. However, both of these sonatas, along with D. 958 in C minor, were composed in the single month of September of 1928, meaning that they were all written when Schubert had a little over a month left to live. The writing of each of those sonatas must have been a massive undertaking, making it tempting to think of Schubert in a losing race with death.

D. 960 is particularly expansive, particularly in its first movement. At a leisurely Molto moderato, the exposition leisurely surveys a series of themes and connecting passages in which, following one of Beethoven’s most striking rhetorical traits, time almost feels as if it is standing still. After all of the themes had been introduced, Schubert wrote a first ending, which is almost a micro-essay unto itself, before having the pianist repeat the exposition. Even before the development begins, the listener has covered considerable ground.

Like many other pianists, Vardanega chose to dispense with that first ending. Her decision would have been endorsed by Brahms, who supposedly claimed that, once listeners got to know a piece, repeating the exposition was no longer necessary. Her decision also allowed her to bring further emphasis to the development. In terms of the contour of dynamic level, the “highest peak” occurs at the end of the development section, giving the entire movement an almost symmetrical rise-and-fall profile. One can easily argue that repeating the exposition tends to disrupt that symmetry.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the marks on paper, what mattered most was the sensitive attentiveness that Vardanega brought to all four movements of this sonata, each of which has no end of distinctive qualities. For all her attention to technical matters, it was her ability to find her own rhetorical delivery that made this very familiar music sound fresh and original. Taken as a whole, the sonata is a meticulously conceived landscape of moods; and Vardanega knew how to cultivate every subtle detail in the landscape without ever overwhelming the listener with the impression the she had too much to say.

The duo performances in the first half of the program were far more modest in scale. Nevertheless, the D. 940 fantasia in F minor for four hands on one keyboard can be said to mark the beginning of “Schubert’s final year,” having been completed very close to twelve months before his death. Like the D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasia for solo piano in C major, the piece is in four sections, the last of which is distinguished by a fugue on the opening theme. However, even if it involves twice as many hands, D. 940 is more disposed to quietude in its thematic material. There are still several passages whose dynamics are reinforced by those extra hands; but there is a steady “sanity” to D. 940 that contrasts sharply with the overt neuroses of D. 760.

Last night Robert Schwartz played secondo to Vardanega’s primo. This was very much an instance of two bodies sharing a common mind. Their balance was always right on the money, and the overall phrasing was so well managed that one could almost imagine it to be the work of a single pianist. Most importantly, however, this was “social” music, intended for performance by and among friends, and Vardanega and Schwartz knew exactly how to evoke the sociability of the Schubertiad spirit that can be found in just about everything that Schubert wrote for four hands on a single keyboard.

For the opening selection Vardanega was joined by cellist Chase Park. The two of them played the opening movement of the D. 821 “Arpeggione” sonata. In the absence of an actual arpeggione (the only one I ever saw was in a museum case), this tends to be the preferred instrumentation. The account was highly satisfying, making at least this listener wish for more. Fortunately, Park returned after the performance of D. 960; and the two of them gave an encore performance. They selected Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 24 “Élégie,” whose own sensitive (elegiac?) quietude offered a thoroughly suitable postscript to Vardanega’s journey through D. 960.

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