Sunday, December 2, 2018

NEQ Accompanies Schubert’s Major Song Cycle

Manuscript of the first page of the final song in the Winterreise cycle (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Late yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) continued its twelfth season with its latest program of music arranged for string quartet, rather than originally composed for those resources. The program was devoted to a single work, Franz Schubert’s D. 911 song cycle Winterreise (winter’s journey). Bassist Kristin Zoernig supplemented the NEQ resources, led by Lisa Weiss on first violin with Kati Kyme on second violin, Anthony Martin on viola, and William Skeen on cello. The vocalist was bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton.

Consisting of 24 songs, D. 911 remains one of the longest vocal compositions organized around a single narrative account. Indeed, its closest competitor is probably Johannes Brahms’ Opus 33 settings of fifteen poems from Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 “Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence” (love story of the beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence). However, this serves more as “incidental music” for a reading (or staging) of Tieck’s text, rather than a song cycle in its own right. Indeed, the magnitude of Schubert’s achievement led to it being published in two separate books of twelve songs each (the second of which did not appear until December 30, 1828, shortly after Schubert’s death). Yesterday afternoon, NEQ chose to take an intermission to mark the separation of those two books.

In spite of its length, D. 911 has become a significant warhorse in the vocal repertoire, right up there with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in the orchestral repertoire. As a result, my personal interest as a listener had less to do with the music itself in favor of how that music held up under arrangement. That arrangement was prepared by cellist Harold Birston; and, given that Schubert himself favored the piano as his own instrument, Birston’s results ran the full gamut to admirably competent to strikingly impressive.

The first example that really caught my attention came with the fifth song in the set, “Der Lindenbaum” (the linden tree). Birston recognized that all of Schubert’s “rustling triplets” would not rustle quite as effectively on a bowed instrument. As a result, he settled for a more straightforward homophonic account, which anticipated the setting for the vocal entry. With the unfolding of the text, Birston found his own ways to establish tension among the instrumental lines that would reflect the impact of the singer’s text.

At a more subtle level I was struck by the ways in which the quintet of string players allowed the vocalist greater flexibility in intonation. One of the ways in which NEQ performances are “historically informed” involves their “liberation” from the constraints of a modern keyboard instrument with equal-tempered tuning. When they play the quartets of Joseph Haydn, the attentive listener can detect the “natural origins,” so to speak, of their fifths and major thirds. To be fair, the perfect fifth on an equal-tempered keyboard is about as close to the 3:2 ratio in the overtone series as you could hope to get; but the major third on that keyboard differs audibly from the “natural” 5:4 ratio.

This can sometimes pose a problem to a vocalist with a keen ear for those natural intervals, who must then adjust to the limitations of his accompanist at the pianist. Tipton never had to worry about this problem. His performance suggested a keenly-informed relationship with the instrumentalists, through which he always seemed to know where to find his reference pitches and how to work with them. Mind you, none of this distracted from the unfolding of the narrative behind Wilhelm Müller’s poems. However, every now and then, it seemed as if certain turns of phrase were given an extra twist by the uniqueness of the instrument-based sonorities.

How significant are those differences? It is worth bearing in mind that Schubert lived during the time when equal-tempered tuning became an established standard. On the other hand his own background involved singing as well as piano-playing. Furthermore, his singing included choral work, much of which involved close harmonies based on an ongoing awareness of reference pitches and basic intervals. It would not surprise me if some (if not several) of the more dramatic moments in D. 911 may have emerged from dissonances that registered with greater impact prior to the standardization of equal temperament. Certainly, there was no shortage of such dramatics in Tipton’s chemistry with his instrumental accompaniment.

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