Originally published on March 23, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
In his Schubertiad at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on March 10, Paul Hersh spoke about the final year in the life of Franz Schubert. His point was that Schubert was so prodigious in both the volume of work and the daring experiments in composition that he pursued that this twelve-month period could (and did) occupy an entire seminar at the Conservatory. He offered this digression because he had programmed two works from this period for his evening of four-hand piano music, the D. 940 F minor fantasia and the D. 947 A minor allegro (“Lebensstürme”).
I offer this reflection because last night, in her San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre in the San Francisco Performances Annual Subscriber Gift Concert, violinist Joan Kwuon performed another of Schubert’s outstanding achievements from this period, his D. 934 C major fantasy for violin and piano. Like the four-hand fantasia, this work pushes the envelope of both structural thinking and virtuosic performance. It also served one of Schubert’s favorite pursuits, which was the discovery of new sonorities and the challenge of fitting them to his compositional framework. The very first tremolo sounds from the piano (excellently captured by Teddy Robie, also making his San Francisco debut) immediately raise issues of balance against the sustained violin lines, which could almost be those of a virtuoso soprano. This allusion to the vocal is subsequently consummated in the third section, which is a set of variations on Schubert’s 1882 setting of Friedrich Rückert’s poem, “Sei mir gegrüsst!” These variations unfold complexities of both structure and sonority, particularly for the violin, that anticipate the intricate fugal writing of the four-hand fantasia. I often find it helpful to invoke the metaphor of “journey” in writing about listening experiences. Both Kwuon and Robie captured the “journey” aspect of this fantasy. At the same time, since the work was composed eleven months before Schubert’s death, it also offers one of the first steps in that more extraordinary journey through his final year.
That skillful approach to sonority commanded by both Kwuon and Robie also served them well in their performance of Georges Enesco’s third violin sonata (Opus 25 in A minor). Much of the character of this sonata derives from its invocation of Romanian folk instruments, the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer) probably being the most familiar. Equally important for the violin (Enesco himself being a virtuoso violinist) are extensive passages written in harmonics, which provide an other-worldly quality to the more reflective passages of the sonata. Chronologically, it is possible that Enesco’s experiments with writing so heavily for harmonics may have influenced Benjamin Britten’s subsequent use of this effect; but, as was clear from last week’s performance of Britten’s first solo cello suite, he took the effect in entirely new directions.
These two highly adventurous compositions were bracketed by relatively short movements originally written for violin and orchestra by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. The evening began with Mozart’s E major adagio (K. 261) and C major rondo (K. 373), both written for the Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti. For her encore Kwuon selected the adagio movement from Haydn’s C major violin concerto (H. VIIa/1), These were sober and reflective performances that framed the more tumultuous core of the evening. Similarly, the Schubert fantasy was followed by André Previn’s Tango, Song, Dance, composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1997 and best described as virtuosity for the fun of it. There is some sense that the soloist has been given an inordinate number of hoops through which to leap; but Kwuon had no trouble with any of them, maintaining a cool composure throughout the process. The intensity of the evening was thus reserved for the middle of the program, preceded by Mozart’s calm and then relieved by the wit of both Previn and Haydn (however odd a coupling that may have seemed).