Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Recital of Contrasts

This afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music I had the opportunity to hear the entirety of the E-flat major D. 929 piano trio, whose second movement had been prepared for Joel Krosnick's master class last March. By way of context, at the time of that master class I wrote the following observation:

There is also an exogenous connection to the Schubert trio, but it goes in the other direction. Schubert began work on his D. 944 ("Great") C major symphony shortly after completing this trio; and, as Krosnick observed, both of the compositions have a slow movement marked "Andante con moto." However, they share a deeper connection in that the "moto" factor in each of these movements reveals at least a faint suggestion of a march (which was a music form that Schubert seemed to enjoy). That suggestion is a bit stronger due to the use of brass in the symphony. However, it is still there in the piano trio, although it is interrupted by one of Schubert's "storms" (as Krosnick calls them), which may be the basis for a forward-looking exogenous connection to the sorts of mood swings we would later encounter in compositions by Gustav Mahler.

I would say that the suggestion of a march was pretty faint; but that "moto" factor dispelled any sense that it was a funeral march, an approach that is sometimes taken, possibly under the influence of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. However, beyond the nature of this single movement, there is a deeper "family resemblance" between the piano trio and the symphony, which is the overall scale of duration. Both require approximately the same amount of time to perform, which usually clocks in at more than forty minutes; and, as I have already observed about the symphony, much of that scale is realized through repetitions (which some performers have felt to be superfluous).

Thus, the most important thing about this performance of D. 929 in its entirety is that it did not feel too long. The performers found a way to work out the right balance between the number of score pages and the amount of clock time. By keeping the overall scale manageable, they could then take Schubert's mood swings (which occur in the other three movements, as well as the second) and deliver their emotional impact without succumbing to tedium. The trio thus emerged as high drama based on a text that was lengthy without being excessive, and the result was as exciting as any performance of this trio that I had previously heard.

Those mood swings were important to the overall program, which was very much structured around sharp shifts in mood and other contrasts. Thus, the program began with the first string quartet by Bedřich Smetana. The mood swings of this work are nicely captured by the description of this quartet in the Wikipedia entry for Smetana:

His string quartet in E minor, Z mého života (From My Life, composed in 1876), the first of only two quartets, is an autobiographical work. Each movement tells a different story about Smetana's life. The first movement is expressive, demonstrative of Smetana's youthful love of art and his search for something undefinable. The second movement, carefree and somewhat raucous, takes the listener back to the days of Smetana's youth. The third movement is reminiscent of the happiness Smetana felt when in love with the girl who later became his wife. The final movement begins with Smetana's joy over the recognition which was given to the national music of Bohemia. However, as the movement progresses, the music is punctuated by a piercing high E in the first violin which, Smetana explained, represents the devastating effects of his tinnitus.

The students performing this quartet excellently captured this moment of crisis in the final movement, using is to pivot a final movement from a triumphant joy to a despair that fades into the silence of the deafness that had overtaken Smetana in 1874.

In keeping with the overall theme of the program, the remaining work on the program was the Contrasts of Béla Bartók for piano, violin, and clarinet (written for Benny Goodman). Contrasts are everywhere to be found, from the large scale differences across the three movements to the variety of acoustic effects elicited by each instrument and the ways in which these acoustic differences are combined. By way of introduction, we were told that Bartók never particularly liked Goodman; and it is easy enough to see that Bartók might not have taken very well to Goodman's approach to swing (if not to swing in general). In my personal fantasies Bartók suffered the tragedy of being to early for the jazz that would have meant something to him. With his keen ear for recording Hungarian folk music, he probably would have felt more at home with the improvisations of Charlie Parker; and, had he lived long enough, he would have appreciated the effort John Coltrane made to play along with a recording of the introduction to the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (from which Coltrane learned the value of wide intervals, which he would then exercise in "Giant Steps"). Whatever the hardships surrounding its composition, however, Contrasts is still a great sonic adventure, giving the ear a roller coaster ride through its contrasts on so many different scales of magnitude; and the Conservatory students did an excellent job of meeting the challenges of this piece, which really deserves to be performed more often.

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