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Music@Menlo Live 2015 - Schubert
rec. 18 July – 8 August 2015, The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, California, USA.
MUSIC@MENLO LIVE 2015 [8 CDs: 538:37]

Music@Menlo is a now well-established music festival held every summer at the Menlo School and Center for Performing Arts in Atherton, in the San Francisco Bay Area. This latest box set is a collection of live performances compiled from the programme in its thirteenth season last year in 2015, and offers a chronological journey themed upon the life and works of Schubert.

What is performed here is not only by Schubert himself but also features music which either influenced him or derives from his influence. Not every item here will necessarily be a first recommendation for a recording, but as a collection it offers a remarkable survey of Schubert’s work and heritage, and some of the performances could be primary choices in their own right, regardless of their position within the festival programme. As a survey, its only major omission is surely the “Death and the Maiden” quartet and the fragment surviving of the song from which it derived; otherwise, as the notes claim, “virtually all of [Schubert’s] greatest chamber music” is here.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the selection of Lieder here is compromised by the lion’s share being sung by a baritone for whose voice I have no taste. Despite being Russian, Nikolay Borchev’s vocal production to my ears bears the hallmarks of in increasingly besetting and prevalent fault amongst, especially, German singers of recent years, which is a throaty, constricted quality preventing free emission of tone and any real variety of colour. His German is flawless and his voice quite powerful but his sound plaintive, wholly unvaried and without the ringing, pharyngeal quality a really attractive Lieder singer requires alongside the ability to sing softly and caressingly; everything he sings sounds much of a muchness to my ears. There are times, too, when he seems to be forcing and as such the vibrato starts to obtrude. I do so wish that more songs had been given to rising New York soprano Joélle Harvey, who has only four numbers in total here, including lovely performances of the extended Lied “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen”, the two favourites songs “Die Forelle”, “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, and André Previn’s “Vocalise”, originally written in 1995 for Sylvia McNair and Yo-Yo Ma. I have heard more characterful piano accompaniments in Schubert Lieder, which can withstand more drive and drama than they are sometimes granted. My only other reservation centres on the very unsatisfactory singing by the contralto in the two Brahms songs on disc 8; she is wobbly and very approximate in the pitching of her notes.

Otherwise, there is some absolutely first rate playing here, including a flawless account of Schubert’s String Quintet by a group who do not seem even to be an established ensemble but play with extraordinary sensibility, sensitivity and homogeneity. That performance is matched by the playing in the Mozart Quintet, K. 406; the opening in particular is meltingly beautiful. Superb, too, is a vivid, driven performance of the Quartettsatz by the Escher String Quartet on the first CD, its rhythms sing and dance as it wanders through keys in chromatically complex passages, alternately delighting and disturbing the listener. The same quartet make a lovely job of the Overture in C minor, an astonishingly bold and confident composition by the fourteen-year-old Schubert.

The sound throughout these recitals is excellent, almost invariably maintaining perfect balance amongst the instruments while retaining a sense of air and space around them; my only slight reservation was whether there was not a little too much artificial prominence given to the cello in the Quintet but that worry was passing.

The sunniest disc here is No. 6, presenting a delightful programme of three of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”, reflecting Schubert’s gift of melody to the world; they are warmly and expressively played by pianist Gloria Chien, The mood continues with the brief but lovely “Rosamunde” ballet music as arranged by Kreisler, then the most enticing performance of Schubert’s most genial and exuberant works, the miraculous Octet for wind and strings, played in suitably relaxed and nuanced fashion by the ad hoc ensemble assembled for the festival. The subtlety of their interplay and dynamics and the accuracy of their intonation are impeccable; this is a disc which celebrates the sheer joy of music-making.

The “Trout” piano quintet on disc 1 is a sleek, modern account which avoids repeats and refuses to linger in the Andante. I find it a bit rushed and hard-pressed without necessarily generating the requisite tension, but the fiendish piano arrangement by Liszt which follows it is played with extraordinary confidence and élan by Gilles Vonsattel. Nor am I much taken by the two string quartets on CD 5, neither of which is granted repeats. In the Allegro ma non troppo of the “Rosamunde” the Escher Quartet is a little slack compared with the urgency of, say ,the Takács Quartet and they do not find the lyricism of the Kodaly Quartet in the Andante; nor does No. 15 have the drama we hear when played by the Alban Berg. In short, these are competent but not really special versions.

CD 3 presents an intriguingly eclectic programme featuring late works by two of Schubert’s musical idols. The Haydn fragments offer a typically elegant and civilised conversation amongst four refined instrumental interlocutors; the Andante is a strange, sombre, bitter-sweet little piece which shares Schubert’s ability to suggest ecstasy and pain simultaneously, as if no matter what assails us, joy is to be found just around the corner; the Minuettto is both quirky and defiant. The late Beethoven sonata is alternately soulful then perky, witty then profound. Those two works sandwich the wonderfully virtuosic playing of Schubert’s “Wanderer” fantasy; this, you will recall was the work about which the composer allegedly proclaimed, “The devil may play it, for I cannot!” Rising Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen might not have Rubinstein’s abandon or weight of tone but he is certainly up to its technical demands.

The box set concludes with two tribute compositions by contemporary American composers André Previn and John Harbison, the latter commemorating the day of Schubert’s death and incorporating allusions to Schubertian themes in a modern idiom. Others may enjoy its spookiness more than I.

This is, in brief, an uneven but enterprising compilation; many items here are played to the highest standard and form a welcome, if inevitably incomplete, bargain-priced introduction to Schubert’s life and work.
 
Ralph Moore

Contents & liner notes
I reproduce below the notes provided by the Menlo Festival explaining the rationale behind the programme.

CD 1: [57:30]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Overture in C minor for String Quartet, D. 8a (1811)
Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 (1820)
Quintet in A major for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass, op. posth., 114, D. 667, Die Forelle (1817)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Die Forelle (D. 550), S. 564 (1846)
Sunmi Chang (viola); Escher String Quartet); Joélle Harvey (soprano); Jeffrey Kahane (piano); Scott Pingel (double bass); Keith Robinson (cello); Arnaud Sussmann (violin); Gilles Vonsattel (piano)

“Disc 1 traces the blossoming of Schubert’s compositional skill, from the Overture in c minor for String Quartet, D. 8a (1811), written when Schubert was just fourteen years old, through his first mature work in the genre, his unfinished Quartettsatz of 1820. During these years, Schubert brought the art of the lied to new heights. Included here is his famous song Die Forelle as well as two works inspired by it—the famous “Trout” Quintet and Liszt’s transcription of this notable melody.”

CD 2: [69:41]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quintet in C minor for two violins, two violas and cello, K.406 (1782, arr. 1787)
Quintet in C major for two violins, viola and two cellos, op. posth. 163, D. 956 (1828)
Benjamin Beilman, violin; Sunmi Chang, viola; David Finckel, cello; Laurence Lesser, cello; Paul Neubauer (viola); Keith Robinson (cello); Philip Setzer (violin); Arnaud Sussmann (violin); Danbi Um (violin)

“Influenced by Mozart from an early age, Schubert sought out every opportunity to hear his works whenever they were performed in Vienna. Mozart’s String Quintet in c minor, K. 406, which Schubert heard performed on March 12, 1826, is paired here with Schubert’s transcendent String Quintet in C Major, composed just weeks before his death on November 19, 1828, at the age of thirty-one.”

CD 3: [74:54]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet in D minor, op. 103, Hob. III:83 (unfinished – 1803)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Der Wanderer, op. 4, no. 1, D. 489 (1816)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet inn C-sharp minor, op. 131(1825-6)
Nikolay Borchev (baritone); Dover Quartet; Juho Pohjonen (piano)

“The Schubertian figure of the lonely wanderer is central to Disc 3, which places Schubert’s Lied Der Wanderer and his virtuosic “Wanderer” Fantasy for Solo Piano between works by his idols Haydn and Beethoven. Composed towards the end of each of their lives, Haydn’s elegant, unfinished String Quartet in d minor opens this recording, while Beethoven’s profound String Quartet in c-sharp minor, op. 131, offers a spellbinding conclusion.”

CD 4: [68:59]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quintet in D minor, K. 421 (1783)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet in E-flat major for winds and strings, op. 20 (1799-1800)
Escher String Quartet); Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet); Peter Kolkay (bassoon); Paul Neubauer (viola); Scott Pingel (double bass); Kevin Rivard (horn); Keith Robinson (cello); Arnaud Sussmann (violin)

"Clues to Schubert’s compositional aspirations are revealed by his deep admiration of Mozart and Beethoven. On Disc 4, Mozart’s String Quartet in d minor, K. 421, the second of his six “Haydn” Quartets, is paired with Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major for Winds and Strings, op. 20, the genre-defying work known to have inspired Schubert’s Octet, composed in 1824 (Disc 6)."

CD 5: [76:38]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet in A minor, op. 29, no. 1, D. 804, Rosamunde (1824)
String Quartet in G major, op. posth. 161, D. 887 (1826)
Escher String Quartet

“Schubert’s transformative years of the early 1820s, when he contracted his eventually fatal illness, were filled with artistic and personal turmoil. Yet the masterpieces flowed. Disc 5 presents a pairing of Schubert’s crowning achievements in the string quartet medium: the achingly beautiful “Rosamunde” Quartet in a minor, D. 804, followed by the lyrical and majestic G Major Quartet, his final work composed in the genre.”

CD 6: [74:59]
Franz MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Selected Lieder ohne Worte
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Rosamunde ballet music (arr. of Schubert’s Rosamunde, Fürstin von Cypern) (1912)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Octet in F major for winds and strings, op. posth. 166, D. 803 (1824)
Dmitri Atapine (cello); Benjamin Beilman (violin); Gloria Chien (piano); Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet); Peter Kolkay (bassoon); Pierre Lapointe (viola); Sean Lee (violin); Hyeyeon Park (piano); Scott Pingel (double bass); Kevin Rivard (horn); Arnaud Sussmann (violin)

“Schubert’s monumental Octet in F Major for Winds and Strings, op. posth. 166, D. 803, anchors works by Mendelssohn and Kreisler. Three selections from Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte and Kreisler’s Rosamunde Ballet Music, an arrangement of incidental ballet music from Schubert’s Rosamunde, Fürstin von Cypern, pay tribute to Schubert’s melodic genius.”

CD 7: [58:07]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Lieder: Gretchen am Spinnrade*, op 2, D. 118 (1814); Erlkönig, op. 1, D. 328 (1815); Die Götter Griechenlands, D. 677 (1819); Dass sie hier gewesen, op. 59, no. 2, D775 (1823); Abendstern, D. 806 (1824); Die Allmacht, op. 79, no. 2, D. 852 (1825); An Sylvia, op. 106, no. 4, D. 891 (1826); Ständchen, D. 889 (1826); Trinklied, D. 888 (1826); Auf dem Strom, op. posth. 129, D. 943 (1828); Der Hirt auf dem Felsen*, op. posth. 129, D. 965 (1828); Der Doppelgänger from Schwanengesang, D. 957/13 (1828); Die Taubenpost from Schwanengesang, D. 965a (1828)
Joélle Harvey (soprano*); Nikolay Borchev (baritone); Hyeyeon Park (piano); Gilbert Kalish (piano); Juho Pohjonen (piano); Kevin Rivard (horn); José González Granero (clarinet); Wu Han (piano)

“His magnificent accomplishments in virtually every other musical genre notwithstanding, Schubert’s lieder—which number more than six hundred and set texts by more than 150 poets—unquestionably represent his most significant contribution to the repertoire. While much of Schubert’s music went unrecognized during his lifetime, his songs for voice and piano were frequently performed—primarily at the Schubertiades, intimate affairs that centered on Schubert’s music—and were cherished by all who heard them. Schubert’s penetrating sensitivity to text is reflected not only in his melodic sensibility—which, of course, is one of his supreme gifts—but also in his imaginative piano accompaniments, how they interact with the vocal writing and relate to the text, illuminating or at times even contradicting the words being sung. Schubert’s innovations to the art song elevated the entire genre, transforming it from simple, domestic fare into a musical form of primary importance for composers of the Romantic generation and beyond. His songs are his legacy, rightly earning him the sobriquet the ‘Prince of Song.’”

CD 8: [57:49]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor, D. 821, Arpeggione (1824)
André PREVIN (b.1929)
Vocalise for soprano, piano and cello (1995)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Zwei Gesänge for voice, viola and piano, op. 91:-
Gestillte Sehnsucht (1884)
Geistliches Wiegenlied (1863-4)
John HARBISON (b.1938)
November 19, 1828 for piano, violin, viola and cello
Gloria Chien (piano); Sara Couden (contralto); Joélle Harvey (soprano); Gilbert Kalish (piano); Laurence Lesser (cello); Paul Neubauer (viola); Hyeyeon Park (piano); Juho Pohjonen (piano); Keith Robinson (cello); Arnaud Sussmann (viola); Danbi Um (violin)
“Opening with Schubert’s expressive “Arpeggione” Sonata, performed here on viola, Disc 8 pays tribute to an array of distinguished composers whose works connect to Schubert in powerful ways—through lyricism, magical harmonies, drama, and, above all, a reverence for the vocal line as the most human element of music. In André Previn’s Vocalise, words were not even needed, and in Brahms’s Zwei Gesänge, op. 91, the addition of a singing viola part intensifies the vocal experience. John Harbison’s November 19, 1828 is a haunting evocation of Schubert’s last days and tells the poignant story of the composer, one week from his death, seeking to improve his art by taking a counterpoint lesson.”

 

 




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