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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Concert Review: The Swan and the Pigeon

Tenor Mark Padmore gives a Schubertiade.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tenor Mark Padmore. Photo by Richard Termine.
No composer had it harder than Franz Peter Schubert. His greatest symphonies were locked in drawers until long after his death. His songs brought him some fame but his operas and choral works remain neglected outside his native Austria. And to top it all off, he died at 31, younger even than Mozart and Mendelssohn who each lived four years longer.

The end of Schubert's brief life was the subject of Friday night's concert by pianist Jonathan Biss and tenor Mark Padmore at Carnegie Hall's subterranean Zankel Hall. This concert was the latest in Mr. Biss' series exploring "last works" by famous composers. For two hours, Mr. Biss and Mr. Padmore surveyed the very last works in Schubert's vast catalogue, performing the last of his piano sonatas and a selection of late songs including selections from the informal song cycle Schwanengesang.

At the end of his life, Schubert was working to expand the form of the three-movement piano sonata beyond the straitjacket of classicism. His A Major Sonata (D. 959 in his catalogue) is his second-to-last, cast in four movements. Mr. Biss launched into a thoughtful account of the opening Sonata-Allegro, moving through the expansive statement of the first theme and the complex development. There is enough music in this movement for three whole shorter sonatas, and Mr. Biss probed deeply into the complex development section before returning to the bright, uplifting opening theme.

The minor-key Andantino is this composer at his most melancholy, writing down intimate thoughts in the related key of F sharp minor. The central section was compelling, with its almost speech-like declamation in the keyboard answered by an uncontrollable sniffle that came from the audience, cutting through the meditative air and always slightly off the beat. The tri-partite Scherzo lightened the mood, bringing back the sunny mood of the first movement's opening. A magnificent final Rondo highlighted the composer's gift for singing melody expressed through masterful command of form.

Mr. Padmore opened his set of late Schubert songs with "Im Frien", with words by Johann Gabriel Seidl. His high clear tenor and Mr. Biss' nimble accompaniment complemented each other, showing how Schubert traded the role of the voice and the accompaniment to drive the all-important meoldy forward. He followed this with a short introduction for the next three songs, "Die Sterne," "Des Fischers Liebesglück" and "Der Winterabend", with bright melodies and (for Austrian art-songs) optimistic words by Gottfried von Lietner.

The singer kept up the conversational style between sets of songs, which added to the intimacy of the evening, making the imagination move from the modern concert hall to the 19th century salon. "Herbst" followed, taking the music to darkened colors and words, evoking the onrushing chill of autumn with words by the poet Ludwig Rellstab who (Mr. Padmore pointed out) outlived Schubert by some thirty-two years. The next three songs were also set to texts by Rellstab: "Kriegers Ahnung," the grim "Auftenhalt" ("Resting Place") and "In der Ferne", three songs from Schwanengesang.

The tone darkened further for the next three swan songs: "Die Stadt," "Am Meer" and "Der Doppelgänger" The horrific imagery and grim, slashing chords anticipated the  early horror short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, with the stark words of Heine offering cold comfort to the listener. The last song of the evening, "Der Taubenpost" returned to the words of Seidl. It is Schubert's final composition, romantic and ultimately sort of hopeful. Following it, no encore was necessary, or for that matter, possible. 

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