Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Classics: The case of Franz Schubert -- how did so much music of such beauty come from one mind, and in such a tragically short time?


Post rehabilitated (with updates, including the addition of audio clips of "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst"), July 2018

Is this the most beautiful music ever written? In the 2018 rehab of this post, we have the sublime second-movement Adagio of Schubert's C major String Quintet played by the Camerata Quartet (violinists Wlodzimierz Prominski and Andrzej Kordykiewicz, violist Piotr Reichert, and cellist Roman Hoffmann; with guest cellist Marta Kordykiewicz), in place of the no-longer-available clip of the Alban Berg Quartet with longtime cellist pal Heinrich Schiff, video-recorded a quarter-century after their still-glowing 1982 EMI recording.

Sena Jurinac (s), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-Decca, recorded 1958

Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1968
"Music is a holy art, to gather all sorts of daring like cherubim around a shining throne, and that is why it is the holiest of the arts! Holy music!"
-- the Composer, at the end of his comically heroic trials
in the Prologue to Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard
Strauss's revised version of their opera Ariadne on Naxos

by Ken

In the Prologue to Ariadne, Richard Strauss of course had the luxury of irony. I don't doubt that he shared all of his idealistic young Composer's beliefs about the sacredness of music and art, but he would have been much too clear-headed to just come out and say so. With the delicious layer of irony afforded him by the Composer's youthful naivete, he managed to make this both a richly comic and a deeply felt moment. Franz Schubert, however, had had the courage to express such sentiments without any distancing filters.

As I wrote yesterday, you can't really provide a rational answer for a question like "Who was the world's greatest melody-writer?" And as I also said, if I kick the question around a little, the answer seems obvious. Yesterday I was talking about Puccini, and he certainly rates consideration, as does Richard Strauss, and you could throw in "the other" Strauss, the principal subject of last week's classical music post, Johann II. Mozart has to be in the mix, and maybe Verdi, and perhaps Rossini.

But in the end, it seems to me that there's no one quite in a league with Schubert.

Just consider the above clip. I kept going back and forth between the first and second movements of Schubert's glorious String Quintet in C. They're almost identical in length, in the 13-minute range. I finally settled on the first movement, if only for the lyrical second subject, first sung by the paired cellos. Maybe I was thinking it was just unfair to enter the uniquely sublime slow movement in such a competition. But I had already copied the embed code for the start of the second movement, and I was too lazy to change it. Besides, how do you turn your back on this ethereal movement?

(I don't know the date of this performance by the Alban Berg Quartet, but it has to fall in the window between 2005, when Isabel Charisius replaced violist Thomas Kakuska, and 2008, when this great quartet -- the one great string quartet of the last several decades, I think -- called it quits after a run of some 37 years. The Berg's 1982-ish EMI recording, also with Schiff, was my first CD version of the Quintet, and it might still be my first pick.)

We think often of the incalculable tragedy of the death of Mozart before his 36th birthday. We don't always remember that Schubert (1797-1828) didn't make it to 32. So it's even more grotesque to speak of Schubert's "late" works, and yet there's no question that, as with Mozart, Schubert in his final years was developing in such amazing ways as to leave one grasping blindly to imagine what he might have achieved with just a few extra years. There's no denying that in the last year or two of his life his art was growing in extraordinarily audacious directions, as reflected not just in our sublime String Quintet but in the giant 9th Symphony (known as the "Great C major," to distinguish it from the "Little C major Symphony," No. 6 -- the word "gross" meaning both "big" and "great"), the last string quartet (No. 15 in G), the last three piano sonatas, and the harrowing song cycle Winterreise ("Winter Journey").

Still, it was evident early on that Schubert had an extraordinary melodic gift, and his subsequent career demonstrated that he had an apparently limitless supply. Without that, it's hard to imagine he could possibly have racked up his mind-boggling total of some 600 songs.

"An die Musik" ("To Music") is at once one of Schubert's least complicated songs and one of his most deeply felt and most searching. There are two recordings I usually press on people -- one obvious, one maybe not. Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966) recorded his as part of the gorgeous Schubert mini-recital that occupied the fourth LP side of his still-unmatched DG recording of the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. The Russian baritone (well, ethnically Armenian, but in his lifetime he would have been thought of, at least to the outside world, as simply "a Soviet baritone") Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004) offered a rollingly luscious account in the diverse '50s song recital once available here as an MK LP.

[2018 UPDATE: In place of the now-gone clip of "An die Musik" I described in 2009 as "a broad, dignified, and just plain beautiful performance" by the Canadian bass-baritone George London, we have this 1960s performance by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with pianist Gerald Moore. -- Ed.]

Thou lovely art, in how many gray hours,
where the wild circle of life ensnares me,
have you kindled my heart to warm love,
have transported me to a better world,
transported me to a better world?

Often has a sigh escaped from your harp,
a sweet, sacred chord of yours
has opened up to me the heaven of better times.
Thou lovely art, I thank thee for that.
Thou lovely art, I thank thee for that.



Symphonies Nos. 8 (Unfinished) and 9. Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony, Josef Krips, cond. (Decca)
Symphonies (complete). Vienna Philharmonic, Istvan Kertesz, cond. (Decca)


Piano Sonatas, D. 958-60. Sviatoslav Richter (various labels); Richard Goode (Nonesuch); Murray Perahia (Sony)
Impromptus. Agustin Anievas, piano (EMI)


Piano Trios (2). Borodin Trio (Chandos). Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Henryk Szeryng, violin; Pierre Fournier, cello (BMG, in various couplings).
String Quartets Nos. 13-15; Quartet Movement (No. 12); String Quintet in C. Brandis Quartet (Nimbus). Plus many fine recordings of the individual pieces.
Trout Quintet. Rudolf Serkin, piano; Marlboro Festival soloists (Sony). Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano; Budapest Quartet members; Julius Levine, double bass (Sony). Nash Ensemble (IMP, with Felicity Lott singing "The Shepherd on the Rock").


Die schoene Muellerin ("The Lovely Miller's Daughter," song cycle). Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hubert Giesen, piano (DG)
Winterreise ("Winter Journey," song cycle). Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano (DG -- note, not the F-D/Moore/EMI or F-D/Demus/DG version). Jon Vickers, tenor; Peter Schaaf, piano (VAI).
Schwanengesang ("Swan Song," song collection). Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone; Imogen Cooper, piano (Philips). Olaf Baer, piano; Geoffrey Parsons, piano (EMI).
Songs. Renee Fleming, soprano; Christoph Eschenbach, piano (Decca). Janet Baker, mezzo; Gerald Moore, piano (EMI). Felicity Lott, soprano; Graham Johnson, piano (IMP).
And for the truly committed: Songs. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano (DG, 21 CDs).
F-D can substitute mere hamminess for real interpretive reach, especially when the vocal lie is uncomfortable for him, but how many singers could have produced a collection like this? And the piano playing of Gerald Moore is for me a constant source of wonder and delight.
Complete Songs. Many, many singers; Graham Johnson, artistic director and piano (and also annotator extraordinaire; Hyperion, 37 CDs).
Vocally uneven, not surprisingly, but a tour de force for Graham Johnson, a Schubert accompanist of almost Gerald Moore-ian stature and a wonderful tour guide in his really detailed song-by-song annotations. This series is a source of endless fascination.


For an updated list, see below.

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At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Schubert was indeed a supremely gifted composer, who barely had a chance to come into his prime. He does not really quite stack up against Mozart for precocity, but Schubert's early death is in my view the more tragic. I think Mozart died at exactly the right moment; I do not think he would have been able to compete with Beethoven.

In Schubert's creative life we may distinguish three periods: roughly 1812-1820, 1821-1823, and 1824-1828. The first period, 1812-1820, is primarily occupied with imitations of Mozart and Haydn -- seldom MERE imitations; one can usually hear Schubert's own voice, but he is not yet rethinking what music ought to be.

The middle period is marked by experimentation and many works abandoned in progress. Above all, he is trying to rethink how music occupies time. I suspect the B minor symphony was dropped because its first two movements are in essentially the SAME tempo and meter. He wants to make his "fast" music "slower", but how maintain a contrast between "fast" and "slow"?

One of the first successful works of the third period, the A minor string quartet, solves this problem by standing it on its head: its "slow" movement is actually faster than its first movement. But this is an unrepeatable stunt. Later come the hypnotic, slower-than-slow movements such as those fo the B-flat sonata and the quintet. That, too, is a vein that he had just about worked out at the time of his death. He would have had to find something new, and we may not doubt that he would have. But as it is, he left his successors plenty to think about.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Frank, for making a point I decided not to get into in the interests of "keeping it simple": that Schubert, although obviously talented, really wasn't the child prodigy that Mozart obviously was. He made an early determination that he was by gosh going to be a professional composer -- a profession that happened not to exist at the time -- and by golly he did it.

In the cases of both Mozart and Schubert, the scope of the genius is so extraordinary that it would be intimidating (as I have to say Bach's can be, at least for me) if the music weren't so user-friendly.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


At 11:32 AM, Blogger Easy Jams said...

More Schubert here played by the inimitable Sviatoslav Richter:


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