A delightful, poignant and thought-provoking Penarth lunchtime Schubertiade

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Penarth Chamber Music Festival – Schubert: Katharine Dain (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Ben Goldscheider (horn), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano), Ágnes Langer (violin), Robert Plane (clarinet). Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 29.6.2024. (GP)

James Gilchrist

Schubert – Auf dem Strom, D.943; Fantasie in C major, D934; Der Hirt auf den Felse, D.965

An hour of a summer’s day spent listening to the music of Schubert can surely never be time wasted. But when such a thoughtfully planned programme is performed as well as it was on this occasion and with an unaffected and welcoming sense of informality, it becomes a memorable experience to be treasured and remembered.

This concert was part of the last day of the tenth Penarth Chamber Music Festival, of which the artistic directors are the cellist Alice Neary and the violinist David Adams. Most of the Festival’s events take place in venues in Penarth, a pleasant seaside town some 5 miles south of Cardiff city centre, but this concert was part of a day of events in Cardiff’s Royal College of Music and Drama to mark the 10th Anniversary of the Festival.

All three of the works programmed were written in the last year of the composer’s all too brief life – the Fantasie in C major in December 1827, ‘Auf dem Strom’ in March 1828 and ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’ in October 1828. The last was, indeed, the penultimate composition completed by Schubert. Two of the works are somewhat uncharacteristic of Schubert, insofar as they were written specifically for performance by professional virtuosi: the violinist Josef Slavík (one of the many to be dubbed a ‘second Paganini’) in the case of the Fantasie in C major, while ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’ was written at the request of the operatic soprano, Anna Milder-Hauptmann (1785-1838). For obvious reasons, both works provide the featured soloist with more opportunities for the ostentatious display of his or her technical skills than Schubert’s wok normally does.

The trio of James Gilchrist, Ben Goldscheider and Simon Crawford-Phillips (a superb accompanist throughout) opened proceedings with ‘Auf dem Strom’ (On the River). As is so often the case with Schubert, his setting reveals depths in the chosen poem of which the poet himself may well have been unaware. At first reading, or when heard in inferior performances, the text of ‘Auf dem Strom’, by Ludwig Rellstab (the man who gave Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.14 its sobriquet of ‘The Moonlight Sonata’) appears simply to ‘record’ the words of a lover setting out on a journey which will take him away from his beloved, left behind on the bank. It does do that, but in Schubert’s setting it also does more, as it certainly did in this excellent interpretation. In the poem’s opening lines [my quotations are from Richard Wigmore’s fine translation] ‘Nimm die letzten Abschiedsküsse, / Und die wehenden, die Grüsse, / Die ich noch ans Ufer sende,’ ‘Take these last farewell kisses, / And the wafted greetings / That I send to the shore’, the language is relatively colloquial, and serves to paint a plausible and recognisable situation. By the beginning of the fourth stanza things have changed; the language has a different kind of power: ‘Ach, von jener dunklen Wüste, / Fern von jeder heitern Küste, / Wo kein Eiland zu erschauen, / O, wie fasst mich zitternd Grauen!’; as set by Schubert, with pressing rhythms and appropriate harmonies,  the lover’s departure seems to have become a voyage into darkness and death: ‘Ah, how I tremble with dread / At that dark wilderness / Far from every cheerful shore, / Where no island can be seen!’.  The trio performing this piece, having given us a touching account of the lover’s feelings as he left his beloved behind, now deepened the emotional import, as the performance took on a profounder sense of anguish, not least in Gilchrist’s expressive singing. The whole now seemed to be informed by the protagonist’s fear of his own death. The effect was stunning.

The Fantasie in C major, for violin and piano, has been thought by some to be a rather ‘empty’ piece, full of instrumental fireworks meaning relatively little. But one only has to hear a performance such as that by Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien [Schubert: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, HYPERION CDA 67911/2] to realise that there is far more to it than that. Here it got an exciting – at times dazzling – performance from the young Hungarian violinist Ágnes Langer and Simon Crawford-Phillips, a performance which also elucidated the work’s emotional content, in terms of both joy and poignancy. Although I had seen Langer’s name before as a prize-winner in several significant European competitions, this was the first time I had heard her play, live or recorded. I was very favourably impressed. The considerable technical complexity of the writing for the violin posed no apparent problems for her and, whether in sweetly lyrical passages or the demandingly rapid parts of the work her tone was always attractive and her control absolute. The writing for the piano has its difficulties too. The brief Wikipedia entry on the work quotes some observations by Nikolai Lugansky: ‘This Fantasie by Schubert is the most difficult music ever written for the piano. More difficult than all of Rachmaninov’s concertos put together’. Obviously, there is more than a little rhetorical hyperbole in this claim, but there are real enough difficulties in the Fantasie. Suffice it to say that Simon Crawford-Phillips was never in danger of being derailed by them.

We had been given a rather special introduction to the work. As we waited for the pianist and violinist to appear on the stage, they were preceded by Gilchrist who, in his usual affable manner, said, with excellent comic timing, ‘I can feel bemusement spreading round the hall, as you wonder, why is the tenor back on stage when the next piece is purely instrumental’. He accounted for his presence by explaining that one of the central movements of the Fantasie is made up of variations on the theme of a song by Schubert: Sei mir gegrüsst [I greet you], D.741, and that he would, joined by the hardworking Crawford Phillips, perform the song for us, so that we might have its melody in our minds when listening to the variations on it.

The Fantasie is made up of several short movements which are only loosely linked. Crawford-Phillips and Langer seemed to me to judge the tempo of the first section (marked Andante molto) just about perfectly. The ensuing allegretto has something Hungarian about it and Langer was naturally very much at home in this movement. Next came the theme and variations from Sei mir gegrüsst. There are four of them, the first three being bravura pieces with a lot of elaborate writing, especially for the violin. These were played with delightful panache. The final variation has more of the gentle lyricism of D741 and was sweet tenderness itself. The Fantasie’s conclusion comes in a kind of ebullient ‘fantasy’ march, in which there is a further allusion to Sei mir gegrüsst – all handled with a certainty of tone and mood by Langer and Crawford-Phillips. While not a characteristically Schubertian work, D934 is a striking work in its own right, especially when played with the vibrancy and insight evident here.

This rewarding and thought-provoking concert closed with a vocal work – ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’, which is so substantial that it might reasonably be described as a chamber cantata rather than a lied. Rebecca Evans (who is the Patron of the Festival) was scheduled to be the soloist in ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’ (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’), but she was forced, by ‘unexpected circumstances’ to withdraw. The organisers did very well to find an impressive replacement, in the form of Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain. Although I was disappointed not to hear Evans’s interpretation of this masterpiece, I was delighted by Katharine Dain’s account of it, in the company of clarinettist Robert Plane and the indefatigable Crawford Phillips. Dain sang the work with all the vocal power and bravura it requires, but with a sensitivity to the text (chiefly by Wilhelm Müller) that was equally impressive; Dain has a voice of some weight, but she can handle it with splendid agility. Clarinettist Plane was impressive in his obbligato role, matching Dain in rhythmic subtlety and displaying great beauty of tone and colour, especially in the echoic passages early in the work. By now, the reader will not be surprised to hear that the work of Crawford Phillips was always precise but also always emotionally committed – while constantly supporting his colleagues he was never in any sense merely subordinate.

There are seven verses in the text of ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’. Verses 1-4 and 7 are by Wilhelm Müller; verses 5 and 6 may be the work of Helmina von Chézy or possibly of Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. Questions of attribution matter little when one listens to the music, given the skill with which Schubert integrates all the verses into a coherent whole. The result is a very Schubertian statement about lonely passion (Schubert’s and/or that of the imagined protagonist?). The first two lines of the last verse – ‘Der Frühling will kommen, / Der Frühling, meine Freud’ – (‘Spring will come, / Spring, my delight’) brought some radiantly gorgeous coloratura from Dain. But the implications of Müller’s verse shift subtly in the two lines which close the poem: ‘Nun mach’ ich mich fertig / Zum Wandern bereit.’ (‘Now I shall prepare / To go a-wandering’). The key word here is ‘Wandern’. The Wanderer is a figure of great importance in the music and poetry (or indeed the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich) of Schubert’s time as discussed, for example, in Andrew Cusack’s book The Wanderer in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (Rochester, 2008). The Wanderer is often impelled by being rejected in love, characteristically being an emotionally unfulfilled figure, steeped in melancholy – sometimes to the point of seeking solace in death. Something of this sort happens subtly at the close of ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’; it is, I suspect, wrong to understand the closing lines as expressing hope for a renewal of love in the ensuing Spring. The pacing and dynamics of this fine performance seemed to confirm my long-held feeling that the closing lines express not hope but the protagonist’s choice to commit himself to a life of wandering outside society, his melancholy not relieved by the anticipation of Spring. One might also see this transition in another way. Up to this point Schubert has given the soprano, Anna Milder-Hauptmann, the kind of quasi-operatic showpiece she evidently wanted. But in his setting of these last two lines, we perhaps hear Schubert’s own voice more clearly. The voice, that is, of a man who must have known that his death was not far off. Indeed, he didn’t live long enough to hear the work premiered by Milder-Hauptmann in February 1830; he had died on November 19, 1828, just weeks after completing the song. What I identify as the foreknowledge of his own death informs the poem’s closing lines and I, for one, sensed this intense personal significance when hearing this perceptive performance of ‘Der Hirt auf den Felse’.

Given that the performers must have had a limited time to prepare together ahead of this concert, all three works received richly intelligent, technically assured and enjoyable performances. The tenth anniversary of the Penarth Chamber Music Festival was well celebrated – and so was Schubert!

Glyn Pursglove

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