Norwich Schubert Afternoon, 20 October 2018

Following the 87th meeting of the SIUK Committee and the second part of the 28th AGM, adjourned from June 2018, held in the morning in the Library of the Anteros Arts Foundation, Norwich, a former Tudor merchant’s house and now fully restored and modernised within, the Schubert Afternoon took us upstairs to the intimate surroundings of the Music Room, with its beamed ceiling and mullion windows, to enjoy a talk and recital given by the Czech/German pianist Béla Hartmann on the Foundation’s 1925 Hamburg Steinway.

Béla, a sought-after concert pianist both here and abroad, was no stranger to SIUK, having performed for the Institute before, and we were privileged to have him once again and to be able to enjoy his erudition and superb pianistic skills. The afternoon took the form of a thirty minute talk, followed by a short break before a recital characterised by a stimulating juxtaposition of old and new, linked by some common threads.

Seated on the piano stool and facing the audience, Béla spoke in a fluent and relaxed manner on a number of general musical issues related to Schubert before homing in on the pieces he was about to perform. Could Schubert be termed a Classical or Romantic composer? Some of his early pieces were more conservative in nature and less searching than the later ones, veering perhaps more towards Classicism, but he acknowledged that there were strong elements of both styles in the composer’s œuvre, giving him a pivotal position between two interlinked schools.

The Six German Dances D820, composed for a young piano student of Schubert’s, Countess Caroline Esterházy, were short pieces, some not more than 16 bars long, destined for private performance among the composer’s friends. Béla remarked on the vast quantity of dances Schubert wrote, and the almost 400 dances of various types fill an imposing number of volumes. Although never far removed from authentic Viennese and Austrian folk culture, they remain melodically, dynamically and harmonically unmistakably Schubertian. The six dances comprising the D820 set date from 1824 during Schubert’s second visit to Count Esterházy’s country mansion at Zseliz in Hungary, but were not published until 1931. Each dance is divided into two repeated sections and the six dances may be divided into two groups of three. The first three dances share the key of A flat major and in their delicacy display a unity of mood further strengthened by the return of the first dance after dances two and three in the manner of a refrain. The final three dances display a variety of mood. The rhythmic adventurousness of the more assertive fourth dance, where the position of sforzando accentuation frequently gives the impression of displacing the beat from triple to duple meter, contrasts with the Viennese lilt of number five and the gentle flow of number six. Unity is once more achieved by casting the final three dances in the key of B flat major and repeating dance four after dances five and six. Interestingly, Webern, after arranging the D820 set of dances for small orchestra, remarked to his fellow student Berg that he found everything ‘unified, and yet dispersed into a really great variety’.

Béla’s next piece was to be the Sonata Fragment in F sharp minor D571, written in 1817. From his talk, it became clear that Béla, like Schiff and many other pianists, preferred to adhere to Schubert’s manuscript and break off at the end of the development. Attempts have been made to ‘complete’ the movement and to add three other movements seen to have an affinity with the first, namely an Andante D604, a Scherzo D570 and an unfinished Allegro D570 to make up a full sonata. The sonata fragment, an Allegro Moderato, is remarkable for its almost constant flow of quavers and its undemonstrative utterance, with a series of lyrical themes, statically shaped rather than highly articulated, seeming to grow naturally out of the steadily moving and modulating bass, transporting the listener into a remote world of serene wistfulness and great beauty. The gentle contours of the quietly lilting ‘Albumblatt’ D884, which was to come next in Béla’s programme, a sixteen-bar waltz in G major comprising two complementary and repeated sections, was a piece that he had long held in affection and which he was always pleased to play. His following piece, the Grazer Gallop D925 in C major, again in two repeated sections, with its emphatic rhythms and jaunty G major trio, would provide a perfect foil to the D884.

Béla chose to move into the twenty-first century with his next piece, Jörg Widmann’s ‘Idyll und Abgrund’ (‘Idyll and Abyss’), its title hinting at the juxtaposition of serenity and turbulence characteristic of Schubert’s later years, and a work subtitled ‘Six Schubert Reminiscences’. Widmann, born in Munich in 1973, and currently professor of composition at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, is a clarinettist as well as a composer. Béla informed us that he and Jörg, a year younger than Béla, were at school together in Munich. Jörg Widmann’s ‘Idyll und Abgrund’ was written in 2009 to complement a performance of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major D960. The six movements comprising his ‘Six Schubert Reminiscences’ are of varying length and without titles. Oblique Schubertian references occur frequently in the form of textures and progressions, but are enmeshed within Widmann’s own style, producing a balance of the tonal and atonal - a homage, as it were, achieved by a filtering of the past through the prism of the contemporary. Béla pointed out that, of the six movements, nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 display Schubertian features most openly, with nos. 3 and 5 being freer. No.1 acts as a quasi-tonal introduction, with slow cadential chord progressions oscillating frequently between major and minor and punctuated by occasional dissonant outbursts in the upper register, moving over a wide-arching bass line which leads the music to its logical conclusion. The atmosphere of the conventional emerging behind a haze of dissonance was seen here by Béla to owe much to Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ and he also found the static quality of the movement to have an affinity with similar qualities found in certain of Schubert’s slow movements. No.2 consists of a theme and variations, separated by various episodes. Echoes of the Wanderer Fantasy and the B flat major Impromptu D935 no.3 may be detected, along with typically Schubertian key shifts. Particularly significant is the quotation of the low trill present in the first movement of the D960 sonata and, as Béla stated and illustrated, briefly and quietly at first and finally longer and loudly, as in the repeat bars from the movement. The final appearance of the theme is harshly interrupted by a vehement G minor chord and the music dissipates into the ether. No. 3 carries the instruction that it is to be played ‘Wie eine Spieluhr’ (‘Like a musical box’) and that the pianist’s hands are to be kept apart. It is the one movement the least overtly linked to Schubert. Béla saw it as providing a welcome moment of stillness between two main movements and a tonally freer contrast to the two most tonal movements. No.4, a scherzando movement, pulls us into the world of the swirling dance. It is full of humour, with the rollicking dance stated at the outset repeated as a unifying force throughout. The movement includes abrupt changes of meter from duple to triple and back, as well as of speed, articulation and mood and goes so far as to require the pianist to whistle at one point! Alternately scurrying and serious, it even conjures up briefly the world of the Viennese polka. The final statement of the dance is broken off by the sound of a horn call. No.5 is a short, somewhat ambiguous movement, with ascending chords, unsettling outbursts and a final questioning phrase. Béla saw this movement as a buffer between the contrasting moods of nos. 4 and 6. The final movement begins in dark F minor, the right hand’s tragic vein rendered all the more wrenching by the left hand’s E major tonality. C major, E major and F minor succeed each other before a further quote, in slower tempo, from the opening of the D960 sonata is heard. The music finds difficulty in settling tonally, with F sharp minor quickly followed by G minor before the music fades.

In perfect contrast to the turmoil of what has gone before, Béla skilfully chose Schubert’s Sonata in A major D664 to conclude his programme. This perfectly structured sonata dates from the summer of 1819, when Schubert spent two months in Steyr, in Upper Austria, and was dedicated to Josephine von Koller, daughter of a host there and whom he considered to be ‘very pretty’ and ‘a good pianist’. Evergreen, lyrical and outgoing, it surely reflects the beauty and tranquillity of the Austrian countryside, which Schubert found ‘unbelievably beautiful’. Béla found this sonata to be one of Schubert’s most charming and versatile works, with its three movements - Allegro moderato-Andante-Allegro - all sharing the same optimism.

Following the break, Béla returned to give his recital. The Six German Dances D820 were performed with a fine clarity of texture and control of dynamics. The finesse of the first three of the set, with their predominantly subdued utterance and only occasional rises of tone, was sensitively handled and the diversity inherent in the final three was well portrayed. The strong syncopation of the fourth dance came across clearly, with well-judged sforzandos, and acted as an assertive refrain to the fifth and sixth. The relaxed gait of the first section of the fifth dance contrasted well with the bold chordal interjections of the second section and the legato melody of the sixth dance sang out tellingly against the quaver flow beneath. Béla clearly adapted his playing well to the reverberant acoustic of the room which might otherwise have proved overpowering.

In the Sonata Fragment in F sharp minor D571, Béla achieved a fine balance between the richly harmonic left hand and the plaintively singing right hand, with its gently measured tread and yearning beauty. The searching, rhapsodic quality of the music was well conveyed by means of subtle shading and close attention to dynamic detail. Although incomplete, there is a certain other-worldliness about this sonata fragment, which must surely have been something quite new at the time. As Béla lifted his hands from the keyboard just before the recapitulation, at the point where Schubert had left off, there was a noticeable stillness. No applause but a fleeting moment perhaps of quiet, respectful reverence before the pianist launched into his next piece, Schubert’s ‘Albumblatt’ in G D844. Béla succeeded in charming us with this little gem, bringing out its gentle contours and capturing effortlessly the rise and fall of the melodic line. A perfect example of how Schubert is so frequently able to create beauty out of simplicity. The pounding hoofs of the ‘Grazer Gallop’ D925, which came next, brought us racing across the Austrian countryside, and its carefree trio seemed almost destined to set us whistling.

Jörg Widmann’s ‘Idyll und Abgrund’ proved a most rewarding challenge to the listener and Béla Hartmann gave a very convincing performance of the work. I had heard the work played once before by Béla, but gained immeasurably from a second hearing that afternoon. In the first movement, by careful placing of the notes and great attention to nuance, he managed to conjure up an atmosphere of wonderful stillness as the music unfolded in a series of answering phrases between bass and treble. A clear harmonic structure shone through the quiet windings of the bass line as bass and treble engaged in a conversation punctuated by occasional acerbic dissonances which served to heighten further the expressiveness of the music. I was struck by the skilful crafting of the piece: not a note seemed out of place and the music moved to its conclusion with almost classical logic. From the outset of the second movement, an atmosphere of restlessness was established, as shattered references to Schubert appeared to settle into the statement of the main theme, the rhythmic contours and concluding turn of which recalled the B flat impromptu mentioned earlier, but remained coloured by the shifting harmonic sands of a disturbed bass line. Béla’s sensitive playing brought out the tensions inherent in this movement, as successive statements of the theme became increasingly atonal against ever darker murmurings of the bass. Despite serener moments of pure Schubertian harmony, the final loud left hand trill heralded a gradual increase in agitation and a virtual disintegration of the music. The mechanical disembodiment of the short third movement provided a telling moment of stillness before the fourth movement, where Béla was able to abandon himself to the exuberance of the dance. His formidable technique enabled the condensed contrasts between playfulness and seriousness, fast and slow, flightiness and reflection to be sharply delineated and the final horn call seemed to hang in the air like a question mark. The short fifth movement brought us back to the world of the atonal. Béla created a sense of disturbance and unease as quiet chordal progressions were punctuated by dissonant interjections. He managed to create a deep sense of intensity in the sixth movement which I found to be the most profound of the six. Around slow motion references to the opening of the D960 sonata Widmann seemed to weave a deeply-felt, albeit fleeting farewell to a composer whose music had left an indelible impression upon him. The final tonal ambiguities and eventual dying away of the music produced, to quote Béla, ‘a feeling that all hope and strength has ebbed away’, mirroring no doubt the sense of tragedy and loss at Schubert’s early death.

The above observations on Widmann’s ‘Idyll und Abgrund’, which Béla Hartmann so vividly and faithfully interpreted for us, are, of course, my own personal ones. If I may have whetted the appetite of readers for forming their own views on this most interesting of works, I would recommend their listening to the fine rendering of the piece given by Béla himself at a concert in London in early October 2018 and available for viewing on his website. Another fine performance of the work by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, is also currently available online. There is also a performance of it on the Chandos label under the title of ‘Homage to Schubert’ given by the young Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman, where it features alongside Schubert’s Sonata in A major D664, Gyorgy Kurtag’s ‘Hommage à Schubert’ and Schubert’s Sonata in D major D850. Interestingly, in a clarinet and piano recital given by Jörg Widmann (clarinet) and Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano) in the Carnegie Hall, New York, in April 2017, Mitsuko played Widmann’s ‘Idyll und Abgrund’ as the fifth item on the programme.

From the astringent beauty of the Widmann, we moved straight into Schubert in lyrical vein with a performance of his Sonata in A major D664. Béla’s unhurried choice of tempo enabled the music to breathe and the essential qualities of the work to stand out. The main theme of the opening Allegro Moderato movement in sonata form was beautifully rendered, with the lyrical contours of the right hand melody singing out over the gentle quaver flow of the bass. The second theme, a soft, tender melody over a triplet accompaniment, beginning in the tonic key but moving into the dominant key of E major, was played with sensitivity and precision. The short but eventful development section, with its rising octave triplets, was rendered with clarity and a well-judged sense of drama before the music subsided and proceeded effortlessly to the recapitulation. A brief coda, with quiet nostalgic references to the main theme, brought the movement to a close. The reiterations of the reposeful and expressive theme of the serene Andante in D major were portrayed poetically, with a fine balance between the hands, its peace broken only for a moment by its two sforzando bars. The final Allegro brought us back to sonata form. Béla succeeded in bringing off its mercurial and dramatic qualities in great style. Lightness of touch, clear articulation and an ability to generate a strong rhythmic pulse in octave and chordal playing were called for. Béla met these requirements admirably, whether in the contrast between the carefree main theme, the dance-like quality of the second, the massive sforzando yet springy climaxes or the imitative treatment of the development. One of Schubert’s most condensely crafted movements, for sure, demanding swift responses from the pianist and a remarkably dramatic movement within a deceptively unassuming work.

As an encore, we were treated to Béla’s own Paraphrase on a Waltz by Brahms, which related to No. 8 of the Liebeslieder Waltzes op.52. With its combination of gentle lilt, massive rhythmic verve and richness of expression, it proved the perfect finale to a memorable recital.

It was encouraging to see a good number of members of the public at the Schubert Afternoon, demonstrating no doubt the effects of the advertising. It was unanimously felt that the combination of talk and recital had worked well. From the outset of his talk, it was evident that Béla Hartmann knew he would be addressing specialists and non-specialists alike and hoped to pitch his remarks accordingly. Praise at the end from, among others, Michael Brunson, political broadcaster and local singer, with a deep interest in the aims of the Institute, revealed that Béla had clearly succeeded in his endeavours.


© 2019 Lester Shaw


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