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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
The Schubertiade State of Mind:
Monica Huggett (Baroque violin) and Audrey Axinn (fortepiano) at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, New York City, 6.5.2010 (SSM)
Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D.384
Mozart: Sonata in E-Flat Major, KV.380
Weber: Sonata in G Major, Op. 10 no. 2
Beethoven: Sonata in F major, Op.24, “Spring”
It is a rare occurrence at any concert or opera when every possible aspect of the performance experience succeeds
completely. I am not simply referring to the musicians, concert hall or instruments but to the gestalt: the unified whole that makes the sum greater than all of its parts. The audience, for example, is certainly an often overlooked aspect of what can make or break the success of a concert experience. When have you last felt at a concert that there was no one there except you, no coughing, candy wrapping creaking, applause or bravos at the wrong time, no head bobbing, no toe tapping, or snoring (at least that I was aware of? ) At the end of the the Schubert sonata, there was a pregnant pause, so silent that everyone seemed awed, stunned that the piece was actually over. At the intermission, instead of the usual rush to check a cell phone, smoke a cigarette or use the facilities, and at the end of the concert, instead of the usual dash to catch a cab, the audience would have been happier to go on applauding the performers than to leave.
It was not just the fact that the first piece was Schubert that made me think that this concert was close to what it must have been like to attend a Schubertiade, with the famous drawing by Moritz von Schwind in my mind.
As Richard Gross states in his Life of Schubert, “Schubertiades were certainly events, but also perhaps, a state of mind.” Granted the seating was not quite the same as in Schubert's time: The Abigail Adams Smith auditorium, although built early enough (1799) to have had Schubert perform there, was set up with the usual chairs facing the performers. The number of people present at the concert was in line with what we know as the number that attended Schubert's soirees. Unfortunately for the performers who deserved more and for the charity (The Gruson Fund for Brain Tumor Research and Care) which sponsored the event, it should have been better attended.
Being seated piano-side near the front of the room added to this Schubertian "mind state." Although, there is no evidence that Schubert performed any other composer's music at these get-togethers, it would not have been anachronistic for him to have been the fortepianist in the pieces performed by the Huggett-Axinn duo, both Weber and Beethoven being contemporaries of Schubert (and Mozart dead only six years before Schubert's birth). The fortepiano played by Audrey Axinn is according to Ms. Axinn: “A copy of a piano by Anton Walter...from the period (c. 1800)... having in addition to the standard 5 octaves... two extra notes on top.... (to) play works by Schubert and Hummel.” Monica Huggett's was playing a violin built by Joseph Albani of Bolanzo in 1707.
The ambience of the evening was clearly established with the gentle lilting unison opening phrases of Schubert's D Major Sonata, D. 384. Although the movement is marked Allegro con molto, this was not the allegro molto of Vivaldi. One felt that although Ms. Huggett's instrument was from the early 18th century, she had the clear understanding that this was not Baroque music, a fact often mistaken in performances of 19th century music by some of the great modern day purveyors of historically informed performances. Often, in view of the fact that Baroque stringed instruments and keyboards cannot sustain notes as long as their modern day counterparts can, tempos are unnecessarily increased in order to hide this fact.
This was intimate music performed in true period style, music that the performers were clearly aware needed room to breathe. Most of Schubert's instrumental music, the late piano sonatas in particular, are built on songful melodies, repeated exactly or varied, but only slightly. There is no doubt that the themes in the development section come from the exposition section. Schubert could not write developments like those of either Mozart or Beethoven. His music succeeds not by taking themes apart and putting them back together but by the accretion that occurs through subtle variations on the main themes. There is no reason to rush this music. Schubert can take care of it by walking rather than running and here the performers were walking with him.
The selection of Mozart's Sonata in E-Flat Major KV. 380 was a brilliant choice as a companion piece to the Schubert. Certainly, there is Mozart's signature on every note of this piece, yet with one's eyes closed, and ears open one might think that Mozart's poignant second movement was written by Schubert. There is just that right combination of soulful melancholy that one finds, for example, in the Andante un poco mosso movement of the Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, Op.99 D.898. The gentle way the artists handed Mozart's heartrending main theme back and forth between each other was something very special.
Another programming coup was the slight but delightful Sonata in G Major by Weber. The opening jaunty first movement, a Caraterre Espagnuolo and the concluding Air Polonais reflect the popular folk music influences of the day. While not belaboring the Schubertiade conceit being presented here, Schubert would undoubtedly played at these gathering his own Ecossaises, Polonaises, and pieces both á la Hongroise and á la Française.
The well-known Beethoven “Spring” Sonata concluded the concert and it is here that I have my only caveat about an otherwise perfect concert. It was in fact a sensitive performance, particularly Ms. Axinn's accompaniment. I would be surprised if this was her first, second or even tenth performance of the work so comfortable was she playing this piece, that it nearly rendered the score in front of her and her page turner redundant. What was missing, but what was needed for this sonata, is a certain amount of heft that the Baroque violin just doesn't have. Perhaps the choice of Beethoven's the first or second sonata would have been more in order: pieces still informed by the older style of “fortepiano with violin obligato,” music in which the violin is an accompanist to the fortepiano rather than an equal partner.
All in all a delightful concert, an unexpected surprise and a needed antidote to so many impersonal concerts performed theses days. I look forward to the return of these performers to a more befittingly packed house.