Anja Lechner/Pablo Márquez: Franz Schubert – Die Nacht (ECM New Series 2555)

2555 X

Anja Lechner
Pablo Márquez
Franz Schubert: Die Nacht

Anja Lechner violoncello
Pablo Márquez guitar
Recorded November 2016, Spiegelsaal, Residenz Eichstätt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 2, 2018

In his book Franz Schubert: Music and Belief, the late Leo Black wrote of the Austrian composer as figure of faith whose image morphed from “carefree minstrel” to “a man sorely tried, living under a horribly oppressive regime, afflicted through his own miscalculation with a horrible disease that was bound to bring an untimely end and make his final years a sojourn in Hell.” In either reduction there is surely a bit of mythology at play, for in the music itself we find a third Schubert: one whose breadth was all of those and so much more.

Although none of us knew Schubert, in the present recording we feel like we did at one time: a childhood friend dangling at the edge of memory and now pulled into the foreground by two musicians who understand his unique ability to, as Wolfgang Sandner phrases it in his liner essay, “poeticise all that is real, to turn reality into a dream and the dream of a better world into reality, all with the means of music.” In this spirit, cellist Anja Lechner has returned to her foundational love of Schubert and, alongside guitarist Pablo Márquez, carves an intimate sigil into the ever-growing tree of interpreters.

The selections herein speak mostly of latter days, during which Schubert was perhaps as much chiseled by creative visions as said visions were by his approach to a score. All lead to the precise yet free-flowing melodies of Nacht und Träume, of which humane touches in both the composing and this performance wind through forest on their way to new experiences. As a beacon among the program’s shorter pieces, it shines inlaid light upon such other standouts as Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), in which Lechner evokes the titular instrument with sul ponticello double stops; Fischerweise, which unspools its theme with forthright harmonic drive; and, of course, the album’s title work, in which past and future dreams melt in the crucible of a lively here and now. Further delights abound in the rarer Romanze, an anatomical study written as incidental music for Rosamunde, and the duo’s rendition of the a-minor “Arpeggione” sonata, a relatively optimistic portal in which even the most eruptive moments cling like ink on pages bound by aged leather.

While this would be enough for a robust sequence, through it all are interspersed three nocturnes by Schubert contemporary Friedrich Burgmüller (1806-1874). Originally written for cello and guitar, they stir the proverbial soul while healing its wounds with grace. As the air in different seasons, each takes on its own constellation of fragrances, temperature, and quality of light, shifting from introspection to full gallop and back again.

Die Nacht is one of those special albums that could only have taken place under the guiding hand of ECM. Resting within its compact circle is music of translucent beauty, recorded with a balance of depth and immediacy, by musicians who surrender themselves to every note, and all in the name of a composer whose footprints have plotted their own glowing path along the label’s historical trajectory, as one hopes they will continue to do.

András Schiff: Franz Schubert – Sonatas & Impromptus (ECM New Series 2535)

Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

András Schiff
Franz Schubert: Sonatas & Impromptus

András Schiff fortepiano
Recorded July 2016, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

“Secretly, I hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?”

In these words, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) at once shadowed himself against his light of inspiration and added to its fiery glow. But because artists of any type are often their worst bêtes noires, the humble interpreter would better judge his place in history, for while this music exuded from the body of its composer, it infuses every sinew and synapse of its performer. In András Schiff, Schubert finds an amplifier both in and out of time. “Schubert’s music,” notes the Hungarian-born pianist, “is the most human that I know,” and only a musician of such humanity could hold true to that doctrine.

In his own day, Schubert was filed prematurely under “recondite,” and so after the publication of his first two early sonatas he dove headlong into his crowning Winterreise, producing also in that period the Moments musicaux (see ECM New Series 2425/26) and the first Impromptus D 899. The latter were never meant to be concert pieces. “And even if we play them in a large hall today,” Schiff insists, “we have to transform that space into an intimate space.” Schiff does that, and more, in his renderings of these mosaics. From the light-footed highs to the surface-level lows and the heavenly mids between them, Schiff achieves a striking balance and dynamic spread on the Franz Brodmann fortepiano, built in Vienna circa 1820, which makes its recording debut here. In the first impromptu especially, one hears a mind thinking aloud in words that can only be captured in their absence. In place of letters, Schubert writes with feelings—not impressions, but fully formed emotional landscapes. As lines diverge, Schiff handles their individuality with surgical care. In both the second and third impromptus, he carries across a sense of water running through a forest, while in the last enhancing the modesty reflected in the epigraph above.

The Sonata in c minor D 958 was written in 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death. Its Allegro plunges us into a world all its own, crafted as much by shadow as by light. Schiff’s rhythmic sensitivity is righteously attuned and reveals a difference of reiteration rarely matched. The mournful Adagio finds its promise fulfilled by asking for no promise to be fulfilled. Its eternal spiral of questioning and answering becomes a private dialogue for composer and performer alike. A Menuett gives us respite from the weight of darkness, turning to a memory as a rift in the fabric of time that cannot be brought closer no matter how far we reach. The final Allegro, which Schiff calls a “dance of death,” is a mad, desperate rush into turbulent night. At any given moment, it threatens to unchain itself, but manages to hold its integrity, even as it unspools to a thread of its former glory.

The Three Piano Pieces D 946, essentially impromptus by another name, are among Schubert’s most adroit. The first of these, in e-flat minor, appeared at Schiff’s fingers previously on ECM in his Encores After Beethoven, and enthralls even more in the present rendition. This piece has it all: drama and introspection, virtuosity and humility, life and death. The second is an inversion of the first, achieving some of its densest textures in the middle between a head and tail of airy resolution, while the final impromptu jumps through one thematic hoop after another until it sticks its landing perfectly.

Schiff is keen to observe that Schubert, even in his brief life, wrote more than 600 lieder for piano and voice, and that even when writing for solo piano “the human voice and the song are always present.” His magnum opus, the Sonata in A Major D 959, is proof positive of this effect and is alone worth the price of admission. Its gargantuan opening is the science of poetry incarnate. At nearly 16 minutes, it floats two images for each one it sinks, and leaves us tenderized for the lachrymose Andantino that follows. If any single movement can be exhibited as proof of the fortepiano’s capabilities, this would be it. From whispers to thunder, it encompasses the full gamut with breadth of mind, and Schiff understands its mechanical heart as his own. The mood is so intense that the Scherzo opens a portal from one end of life to the other, bleeding into the concluding Rondo as if time itself were a physical substance to be waded through on the way to eternity.

As Misha Donat writes in his liner essay, “In the beauty of his material and the magical effects of elliptical key change…it must be said that Schubert actually surpassed his model.” But perhaps their relationship isn’t so much temporal as spatial, for while Schubert had himself buried close to Beethoven, the two would seem to converse from atop distant mountains even as performers of their music try to hang-glide along the currents between them without falling. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Schubert might have written had he lived beyond the tragic age of 31, that his flame caught hold of its worldly wick for as long as it did should be enough to validate the gift of its light.

Widmann/Lonquich: Schubert – Fantasie C-Dur, etc. (ECM New Series 2223)

Widmann Lonquich Schubert

Carolin Widmann
Alexander Lonquich
Schubert: Fantasie C-Dur, etc.

Carolin Widmann violin
Alexander Lonquich piano
Recorded October 2010, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“We cry, knowing in untold happiness, that this music is as it is in the promise of what one day we ourselves will be. This is music we cannot decipher, but it holds up to our blurred, over-brimming eyes the secret of reconciliation at long last.”
–Theodor W. Adorno, “Schubert” (1928),
trans. Jonathan Dunsby and Beate Perrey

If Adorno’s thoughts on Franz Schubert seem as indecipherable as the music they describe, it’s only because I have taken them out of context, arriving as they do at the tail end of a dense essay. Similarly, the C-Major Fantasie of 1827 that begins this all-Schubert program from violinist Carolin Widmann and pianist Alexander Lonquich comes to us excised from the tail end of a dense life. Just shy of 31, Schubert would die 11 months after committing it to paper in bipolar flurry of activity. The piece is widely considered to be the most significant he ever composed for violin, and is distinguished by the technical and emotional demands it places on worthy performers. Even Adorno was ambivalent about the overall success of the Fantasie, rightly praising its protracted Andantino as a melancholy masterstroke while in the same breath criticizing the final Presto as something of a cop-out. If we are to take the implications of this reaction to their fullest, however, then we must also accept that Schubert was less at ease proclaiming endings than he was contemplating their inevitability.

Over a traversal of seven movements, Widmann’s tone control yields thrilling restraint and expectorations by turns, while Lonquich matches her every move with an inward-looking fluidity. Together they crumple rays of light into balls of shadow, tossing them over cliffs of uncertainty until they learn to fly. To the latter end, the Allegretto has never sounded so uplifting than in their hands. With unforced drive and organic handling of tempi, the duo articulates the aforementioned Andantino as if it were a lullaby they’d heard since the cradle. In true Schubertian fashion, they feel intimately connected at a distance, stretching between them a connective emotional reserve. In so doing, they deviate from ECM’s previous recording of this piece (New Series 1699) by way of a less parallel approach that emphasizes the final movement’s reversal of the first.

Schubert’s Opus 70, the b-minor Rondo brilliant of 1826, fills the program’s sweet center with an intriguing diptych. A declamatory Andante sets up a nearly 12-minute Allegro, of which the running melodies and gorgeous key changes reveal a crystalline intellect at play. There is a seemingly inexhaustible energy about this piece, which cracks open each potential ending like an egg and scrambles it back into the shell.

The A-Major Sonata of 1817 closes with the youngest work of the program. Some Beethoven influence is palpable, especially in the leaping Scherzo, but the methodical, nuanced airiness of the opening Allegro is all Schubert, as are the kaleidoscopic Andantino and sly finale. Hearing Widmann and Lonquich navigate its many corridors, one may agree with their characterization of Schubert as the proverbial wanderer, but to these ears their interpretations depict the opposite. It was not Schubert but the landscape in which Adorno situated him that wandered in concentric circles, leaving the composer to pick and choose his songs until the circles closed their mouths far too early.

(To hear samples of this album, click here.)