Viennese Schools of Two Centuries

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg, Schubert, and Beethoven: Lars Vogt (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 18.2.2015 (BJ)

Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
Schubert: Sonata in C minor, D. 958
Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

Thanks in large measure to the popularity of the Fifth Symphony, “Beethoven in C minor” is a familiar concept, almost a cliché in commentary on music. “Schubert in C minor” does not command the same familiar ring, yet this composer too worked wonders in the destiny-laden key that Beethoven had come close to making his own personal bailiwick.

As any man must be who ventures to offer both composers’ greatest C-minor sonatas on one Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, the German pianist Lars Vogt is a serious and deeply thoughtful artist. His seriousness even stretched to including a set of little pieces by Schoenberg in the same program, and to playing them twice as lead-ins to the sonatas that constituted the joint main event. Employing exactly the delicate touch that Schoenberg—rather uncharacteristically—was looking for in his Opus 19 pieces, Vogt made them sound more fanciful and more genuinely musical than I have generally found them to be.

(This is something of a Second-Viennese-School week in Philadelphia: Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony figures just two days later on the next PCMS program, and Gil Shaham and the Philadelphia Orchestra complete the trio of composers with the week’s subscription performances of the Berg Violin Concerto.)

The evening’s Schubert and Beethoven performances reminded me of a very useful distinction that my respected former colleague on High Fidelity magazine’s reviewing staff Conrad Osborne drew many years ago: a particular conductor, Conrad said, was better at conveying how the music should go than how it should sound. In terms of tone, the enchanting subordinate theme in the first movement of the Schubert sonata did not really sing under Vogt’s hands, but it was phrased with meticulous and sensitive care.

Tonal allure, for that matter, was not among this recital’s prime virtues: at the top end of the dynamic spectrum, I found Vogt’s sonority a little too harsh for my taste. He is not one of those rare pianists, like the late Alexis Weissenberg, who can persuade the listener that the piano is not a percussion instrument—which, in point of fact, it must be conceded to be.

The Schubert went very persuasively as it surely ought to go. In the Beethoven, Vogt was clearly not at his best. After a cogently shaped delivery of the Maestoso introduction, he encountered in the main Allegro, first in the repeat of the exposition and then more drastically in the development section, a couple of those memory lapses that can afflict even the most thoroughly prepared of performers.

 The straightforward dignity with which he weathered them won his audience decisively to the camp of his supporters. Aside from a gabbled phrase or two that seemed inevitable at the vertiginous pace he had set for the Allegro (“con brio ed appassionato” indeed, as Beethoven demanded), there was some lovely playing, notably in Vogt’s saturnine coloring of the opening of the development.

 Beethoven’s magical variation finale, too, began with a statement of the Arietta theme that perfectly realized its “molto semplice e cantabile” marking, at a beautifully judged flowing pace. Out of the blue, for some reason, the seemingly sorrowful middle stages of the movement brought Virgil’s phrase “sunt lacrimae rerum”—roughly, “there are tears of the world”—inescapably to my mind. But in the Virgilian context the tears, far from being the harbingers of a tragic conclusion, are the cathartic prelude to the birth of fresh optimism, so it was only appropriate that Vogt’s unaffectedly eloquent playing of the final measures came as balm to the ears, and to the soul.

Bernard Jacobson

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