Friday, January 12, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Schoenberg and Schumann

On Wednesday evening, after having heard that same afternoon an excellent chamber performance at Alice Tully, I went to Paul Hall to hear the final ChamberFest performance I'll be attending this season.  I rarely attend two performances on the same day, but in this case I made an exception as the evening program featured an infrequently performed work by Schoenberg followed by a chamber piece by Schumann that's a standard of the repertoire..

The program opened with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912), the full (and unwieldly) title of which is Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds "Pierrot lunaire."  More than in other works by Schoenberg it's necessary to understand the cultural context in which Pierrot was created.  Vienna at the time was not only the city of Mahler and Freud but also of such Expressionist artists as Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, the latter of whom was to play such a pivotal role in Schoenberg's marital life.  The composer himself was an accomplished painter and was as deeply interested in the visual arts as any of his fellow Viennese.  It's not surprising then that he should have attempted to incorporate Expressionist elements in his music. To accomplish this, he turned to sprechstimme, a vocal technique midway between speech and song, when given a commission by cabaret artist Albertine Zehme to set to music twenty-one poems by Albert Giraud as translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben.  The composer had already experimented with sprechstimme two years earlier when orchestrating the final section, Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, of the revised Gurre-Lieder, a cantata originally steeped in fin de si├Ęcle Romanticism, a style repudiated by Schoenberg only a year later after he had already moved on to atonal music; so disenchanted was he with the work that at its work's premiere he refused to turn to acknowledge the audience applauding him.  By the time he composed Pierrot lunaire the composer had fully embraced atonalism even though he had not yet formulated the twelve-tone system that was to be the hallmark of the Second Viennese School.  Schoenberg himself referred to the poems he had set as "melodramas" rather than songs.  However he called them, he was probably as surprised as anyone at the success they enjoyed at the work's premiere that featured the singer Zehme appropriately dressed as Columbine.

It's probably worth mentioning here Schoenberg's obsessive interest in numerology.  (He suffered all his life from triskaidekaphobia, i.e., fear of the number 13.)  It was this interest in numerology that determined the grouping of the melodramas into three groups of seven each.

One of the great things about ChamberFest is that one often hears works by the same composer performed virtually back to back. I had just heard on Tuesday afternoon the composer's String Quartet No. 2 that had anticipated Pierrot by including a part for voice.  Hearing these relatively early works performed so closely together allowed me to better understand the  manner in which Schoenberg combined voice with chamber ensemble to dramatic effect.

The work was performed by what has since come to be known as a "Pierrot Ensemble" consisting of Marie Engle, voice, Giorgio Consolati, flute, Noemi Sallai, clarinet, Sooyeon Kim, violin, Sophia Sun, viola, Thapelo Masita, cello, and Nathan Ben-Yehuda, piano; they were coached by Lucy Shelton and Sylvia Rosenberg.  While all the performances at ChamberFest this season have been excellent, that of Pierrot stood out for its fine ensemble playing on an exceptionally challenging work.  Marie Engle was outstanding on what has to be one of the most demanding vocal parts in the repertoire.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842).  Several seasons ago I heard Schumann's Quintet in recital a day after having heard his Piano Quartet, written the same year and in the same key of E-flat major.  1842 was the year of chamber music for Schumann whose approach to composing was to devote himself entirely to one genre until  he had exhausted its possibilities.  Thus 1840 had been "the year of the song" while in 1841 Schumann had written two of his four symphonies.  It could be argued that of all these cycles the most successful was that devoted to chamber music.  As the critic Richard Aldrich noted as far back as 1929:
"Schumann’s chamber music of 1842 is in many ways among the most perfect of all the products of his genius; the purest and most powerful in its beauty, the strongest in its form, best balanced in its substance, and best adapted in its technical means and processes to the expression of the composer’s thought."
When I had heard the Quartet and Quintet played in such close proximity to one another, I had thought in general the Quintet had a bigger sound suitable for a concert hall while the Quartet was the more intimate work. The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, was clearly meant to impress the listener while the funeral march was not only a Romantic staple but at the same time a glance backward toward Beethoven.  To conclude the Quintet, Schumann wrote a vibrant finale that remains among the finest accomplishments.  Most importantly, in the Quintet he created an entirely new genre insofar as he was the first well known composer to pair the piano with string quartet, an arrangement largely made possible by technical advances in the construction of the fortepiano that finally allowed its sound to be heard over that of the strings. Although Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann at the work's private premiere, made suggestions that led Schumann to revise the work before its public premiere at the Lepzig Gewandhaus (at which Clara did play), that should in no way detract from Schumann's accomplishment.

Before the performance began, violist Sergio Leiva described to the audience Schumann's recurring use of a "Clara" motif within the work.  I found this highly interesting as I had heard earlier in the week Brahms's Op. 60 that had incorporated that composer's own Clara theme.

The musicians were Yujhie He and Yue Qian, violins, Sergio Leiva, viola, Marza Wilks, cello, and Jie Fang, who gave a notable performance on the piano part; their coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Lara Lev.

No comments:

Post a Comment