Lightening Strikes Twice

May 18, 2009

Sasha et al.
I had the signal experience of hearing two of the best concerts of my life in one day last week. Sasha Cooke, along with an extraordinary young pianist, Pei-Yao Wang, gave possibly the best vocal recital I’ve ever heard. I do not say this lightly and have witnessed concerts by most of the greatest singers of my time. (The first recital by a singer I ever heard, as a youngster in Kingsport, was by the great Eleanor Steber, if that gives you some idea of my perspective.)

Joined for a riveting new piece by the composer-poet Lera Auerbach, who played the piano for its New York premiere along with the young cellist of the moment, Alisa Weilerstein, this recital — at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon — was a revelation from the first notes of the Schubert set that began it.

Later the same evening — what were the chances? — I heard the most memorable string-quartet concert of its kind in my experience. (Not even this strong impression can completely efface the memory of hearing the Juilliard String Quartet play all the Carter quartets in one evening.) We are constantly told about the wit in Haydn’s music. And yet we hear performance after performance in which there is little or no evidence of this. When the Daedalus Quartet (noted in this space before) played the master’s last quartet, there was genuine, spontaneous, and appropriate laughter in the audience. This despite the fact that their playing never stepped outside the strictest bounds of Classic idiom and the most refined tone, inflection, and ensemble. This feat is Haydn’s accomplishment, and theirs.

That they made the thorny serialism of Artur Schnabel’s most ambitious quartet almost as accessible was an equal accomplishment.

Joined by the peerless clarinetist David Shifrin, they then delivered a definitive Brahms quintet. Is it any wonder that I want to communicate to you something of the rewards all these artists offer?

To celebrate that day and to mark it on my little Web site, I append here the program notes that I wrote for the latter concert.


The Austrian composer Dittersdorf and Haydn were friends as young men. One night while roaming the streets they stopped outside a common beer hall in which the musicians, half drunk and half asleep, were fiddling away miserably at a Haydn minuet …

Entering the taproom, Haydn sat down beside the leader and asked casually, “Whose minuet?” The man snapped, “Haydn’s.” Haydn moved in front of him and, feigning anger, declared: “That’s a stinking minuet.”

“Says who?” demanded the fiddler, jumping out of his seat with rage. The other musicians rallied round him and were poised to smash their instruments over Haydn’s head but Dittersdorf, a big fellow, shielded Haydn with his arm and pushed him out of the door. — Norman Lebrecht: The Book of Musical Anecdotes

Haydn once said that no one could compose a truly original minuet. And yet he did it himself over and over. That the second movement of Op. 77, No. 2 exemplifies his inventiveness in what could be a formalistic, rather harmless dance-form is not so surprising when we remember that tonight’s opening work is the last quarter that Haydn completed. By that time he had composed so many quartets as to give free reign to his legendary originality.

His swan-song in the genre is a worthy summing-up of Haydn’s by now easygoing mastery of the string quartet, composed after the seminal master of the string quartet had been stimulated by hearing quartets of the young Mozart and Beethoven. It has often been said that Haydn’s string quartets are symphonies for the chamber, and there is no doubt that he lavished as much invention and care on these works as upon his symphonies, the performances of which were inevitably destined for a much larger public.

The quartet is dedicated to its commissioner, Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, a Bohemian aristocrat and patron of music, resident in Vienna. Thanks to imperial decree, he alone had responsibility for all the Viennese theaters from 1807. His place in music history should be secure, since he not only commissioned Haydn’s string quartets Op. 77 but was a co-commissioner of The Creation and The Seasons, and to whom Beethoven dedicated a number of works. (Haydn was not bestowing the summit of his accomplishment in the medium just anywhere.) It begins with the kind of sonata-allegro movement that Haydn did so much to cultivate. That leads to the Minuet, which is the second movement, transferred from its usual place as the third movement. It is also extraordinary for its tempo, presto, which removes it even further from a routine minuet, allowing the succeeding slower movement to set up for maximum effectiveness the almost reckless finale.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet was created, not for its commissioner, but for its first performers. These included Joseph Joachim, who was Brahms’s ideal interpreter of his violin parts, and the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms was so enchanted by the playing of the latter that he emerged from retirement to compose the quintet in 1891. He explicitly looked to Mozart’s famous Clarinet Quintet as an exemplar — another work that had been devised for the special playing of a favorite clarinetist.

When the strings begin with the theme of the first movement, the solemn — even somber — mood of the work is set. The clarinet begins the second movement in a reflective song-like melody that subsides into the dark atmosphere created by the first movement. The shorter third movement begins in a graceful, relaxed manner, setting up a dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin and between the minor home key and its brighter relative key of D major. The agitation that succeeds the pacific opening returns the work to darker regions. Mozart’s influence is again to the fore in the theme and variations of the final movement, a feature of his own clarinet quintet.

Despite contemporary qualms about identifying “central” artistic traditions and “peripheral” ones, if we can speak of a mainstream in concert music, at least between the French Revolution and the Second World War, it surely flows right through Central Europe. And eminent among the musicians in the full flood of that stream we would find Haydn, Brahms, and Schnabel.

In their day, Haydn and Brahms were famed as performers. But, thanks to the evanescence of live sound and the durability of paper, we now think of them primarily as composers. With Schnabel, the reverse has been true — not only because his lifetime as a leading international performer is not so long past, but also because of his towering achievements in pioneering large-scale and systematic recording. With the perspective of distance, we now have the opportunity to become less bedazzled by his recordings and reputation as a pianist at the expense of his very significant achievement as a composer. Already we can see, in the changes between the 1978 edition of Slonimsky’s great biographical dictionary (where Schnabel is called “celebrated Austrian pianist and pedagogue”) and and the latest Grove Dictionary, which identifies him as  “Austrian pianist and composer, later naturalized American” how this has begun to develop. Slonimsky only mentions that “Schnabel was also a composer” in the last sentence of his article. Grove, on the other hand, not only gives thorough analysis to his place in the history of performance, but integrates his life as a composer into its account of his career, including a list of his works (and notes that most of them were then unavailable).

Now that the unavailability has been remedied thanks to the Schnabel Music Foundation and Peermusic Classical, how do we hear this evening’s three works in relation to each other? One is part of the indispensable Viennese corpus of Classical string quartets, one is at the summit of the Romantic chamber-music (and, certainly, clarinet) literature, and the other most of us are still able to hear as a fresh, new composition. Like Haydn, Schnabel gave a special place to the string quartet in his compositional life. It is the only medium of composition that he cultivated with utter completeness, and he seems to have felt that working with four strings freed him from the ways of thinking that a piano keyboard inevitably led him into.

The fifth quartet of Schnabel, composed in Colorado in 1940, is of very great seriousness, both as to its general tone and the earnest complexity of its construction. One of only two occasions when Schnabel employed twelve-tone techniques, it is possible to hear the work as a mosaic of short melodies, sometimes of a surprisingly conventional contour, whose combination is anything but traditional. The composer seems to have had confidence in his dodecaphonic skill, since he sent a copy of the quartet to his compatriot and fellow American resident Arnold Schoenberg, the high priest of the technique. Like Schoenberg, Schnabel was as well-versed in the classical canon as it is possible to be — and in his case was of course a supreme interpreter of a large section of it. It is thus of great interest to hear how, in his own composition, he is pushing at the boundaries and extending the structures that belonged to the literature that was, throughout a monumentally productive life, his daily bread.

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