Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Problem of Rhythm

Were one to assess the merits of Nikolaj Znaider's San Francisco Performances debut violin recital last night at Herbst Theatre solely from the architecture of his program, there would be little doubt of his keen musical perception. The concert was framed by two sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven from opposite ends of his canon of violin sonatas. It began with the third of his Opus 12 sonatas, his first venture into this particular form, and concluded with the Opus 96, the last of those ventures. Between these two sonatas was the D minor partita by Johann Sebastian Bach for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1004, with its concluding chaconne movement) and Arnold Schoenberg's "Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment" (Opus 47). As Znaider put it in his opening remarks to the audience, the former was chosen for inspiring Beethoven and the latter for drawing upon Beethoven as a source of inspiration.

If, as I continue to argue, we go to concerts to become better listeners, then Znaider definitely engaged an interesting strategy for getting our attention. One might even forgive him for being a bit raggedy on the details. As I had written when I was dealing with András Schiff's decision to play an entire Bach keyboard partita as an encore to the second concert in his cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, we have it "on record" that Beethoven had a high opinion of Bach; but that same "record" indicated that he had a higher opinion of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as George Frideric Handel! If we are really interested in orienting the Opus 12 sonatas around their "inspirational roots," we are more likely to be informed by Mozart than by Bach. In Schoenberg's case we need to draw the distinction between what he composed and what he taught about composition, particularly in the material compiled by Gerald Strang and Leonard Stein into the book, Fundamentals of Musical Composition. In the latter case the influence of Beethoven is particularly strong: One really cannot make sense of Schoenberg's expository approach without a pretty thorough internalization of the full cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. Other Beethoven compositions are cited, but primarily as auxiliary reminders that Beethoven wrote more than piano sonatas; and the only violin sonata that appears is Opus 30, Number 2, in the "Scherzo" chapter. As to the former case, I would say that a "Beethoven connection" to any of Schoenberg's own work, particularly this "Phantasy," is pretty remote; and it would be more than frustrating to try to draw upon any of Beethoven's work for purposes of orientation.

So Znaider's strategy was, at best, a good intention; and we all know what they say about roads paved with good intentions! Therein lies the rub. I would not go so far as to say that Znaider was leading us, as listeners, down the road to Hell; but I would say that he was not leading us very well in any direction. I would then add that this "disorientation" was also present in his performance. In this respect I should say at the outset that my own listening experience was heavily influenced by the attention I was paying to matters of rhythm last week, particularly with regard to some of Joel Krosnick's remarks about the relationship between harmonic rhythm and metric pulse. From my point of view, the "bottom line" of Znaider's recital was that he usually had a strong command of the latter and did not seem to attach enough significance to the former.

Schoenberg "Phantasy" thus probably came out better than any of the other works on the program. On one of my summers in Santa Fe, I had the good fortune to turn pages for Ursula Oppens when she rehearsed this work with violinist György Pauk. This gave me an appreciation for how meticulous Schoenberg had been in his notation and an even greater appreciation for how Pauk and Oppens could still find the right "joints to flex" in order to express their interpretation of the score. However, this is a complex work; and, without a score to follow, I was at a greater disadvantage last night. At best I could say that I was aware of the radical mood swings that play out in this composition and the way in which Znaider and his accompanist, Robert Kulek, maintained sharp boundaries between those moods; but the individual characters of each of those moods were not particularly well-drawn, so to speak. Thus, while I remember Pauk saying, "Now we dance!" during the rehearsal with Oppens, listening to Znaider I could not, for the life of me, recall which passage had prompted him to say that! Thus, I am afraid that this was another one of those dog-walking-on-hind-legs performances. The work is performed so seldom that we have to be thankful that it was given even a passable reading; but I am afraid it was not the sort of reading that might lead us to become better (and more accepting) listeners of Schoenberg's music.

This brings us to the rest of the program. Krosnick had invoked the concept of harmonic rhythm in teaching San Francisco Conservatory students about the performance of Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms. Both of these composers were heavily influenced by Beethoven; and, while I am not sure about Schubert, I know that Brahms was also indebted to Bach. I suspect it would be fair to say that a command of harmonic rhythm would account for a good part of the debt for both of these latter composers. To some extent harmonic rhythm drives the overall structure of a composition, and that drive becomes more important as the durational scale gets longer and longer. Schubert was one of the first to attempt to augment Beethoven's scale, and Brahms took Schubert's directions at greater length and with greater confidence.

Meanwhile, the Opus 12 violin sonatas fit squarely in the time frame of Schiff's second concert in his piano sonata cycle. This was, for Beethoven, a time of early experimentation with both overall duration and the musical forms that would fill those extended durations. So, while that concert took place last October, those who remember it had the perfect frame of mind to bring to a performance of Opus 12, Number 3. What is particularly interesting is the way in which that device of harmonic rhythm is engaged to create deceptive anticipations of closure (not unlike the deceptive cadences we study in harmony); just when you are about to let the music "settle into closure," it turns on a dime and explores a new set of compositional gestures. Beethoven became very good at this, to the point that it was second nature to his compositional language when he was working on the Opus 96 sonata; but I have to say that I was not convinced that Znaider heard any of this in either of these scores. Thus, while we had plenty of dutiful technique and even some colorful bowing, it was as if the composition was there only to showcase these surface features; and, while his audience was, for the most part, enthusiastic about those features, I found myself disappointed with the "whole package."

This approach to "playing with closure" can also be found in Bach. I have previously written about this in the framework of Bach as a master improviser, the likes of which never really surfaced on such an extensive scale until John Coltrane came along to stretch our expectations regarding the durations of jazz improvisation. What these two shared was a gift for being able to say, "and another thing," and go on without sounding in any way boring or tedious. Bach does this gently in each of the dance movements of the BWV 1004 partita; and, by adapting our ears to it on the small scale of those four dances, he prepares for the radically larger scale of the chaconne, whose duration is approximately that of the first four movements. Znaider spoke about this to the audience in terms of a synthesis of sermon and impassioned monologue; but, having played (or tried to play) the two piano arrangements by Brahms and Ferruccio Busoni, I would have to say that Znaider is far from the mark. The chaconne is an extended improvisation on a simple foundation that has a lot more do to with Coltrane's prolonged explorations of "My Favorite Things" than it does with sermons and monologues (both of which often send us looking at our watches and getting restless in our seats).

Here, again, was where Znaider was disappointing. Whether or not he was playing notes from a score, the feeling of improvisation was absent; and, as a result, the listening was all about surface features and little more. The chaconne was more of an athletic accomplishment than a musical statement. All this leads me to wonder what will happen next season, when Znaider returns to perform the Brahms violin concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. He has already recorded the Brahms sonatas with Yefim Bronfman, who is one of my favorite pianists; and I am almost always pleased with the shape that Blomstedt brings to his performances (although I have yet to hear him perform Brahms). Perhaps Znaider "plays better with others" than when he is on his own; so I shall be very curious to hear what sort of performance of Brahms emerges next season.

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