The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Token Creek Festival splendidly captures the poignancy and intimacy of late Schubert through songs and smaller piano works

September 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for this year is presenting three concert programs of what the directors consider “Necessary Music” — as MacArthur “genius,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and festival co-artistic director John Harbison (below) puts it, “We did not even know we needed it until it appears.”

Of the resulting concerts, the first, on last Saturdays night and Sunday afternoon, featured music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn, plus Harbison, suggesting their interaction.

The third program, to come on this coming Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. explores various works in waltz form, old and new. (For more information about the program and tickets, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org.)

And in between, on this past Wednesday night, came Franz Schubert. That was the concert I caught.

Three performers were involved.

To begin with, the two pianists, Ya-Fei Chuang (below foreground) and Alison D’Amato, played the slow movement from Schubert’s so-called “Grand Duo,” D. 812.

That full-length, four-movement work has been claimed by some commentators to be the surviving bit of Schubert’s supposed “Gastein” Symphony. It is splendid music in its own right, and I rather wished it had been played complete, especially with two such polished performers at hand. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Next, Chuang played the six pieces that constitute the collection known as the Moments Musicaux, D. 780. These pieces, mostly in ABA form, bring Schubert’s inherent lyricism into a range of moods that go far beyond mere entertainment. Chuang played them with deeply probing intensity.

The second half of the program was entirely devoted to Schubert’s final collection of Lieder, his Schwanengesang, or “Swan Song,” as the publisher titled it.

It is not a true cycle, but a gathering of 14 songs on which Schubert had been working in his last years, published after his death. One can, to be sure, find common themes among them of longing, loss, isolation, loneliness and apprehension — themes that preoccupied the composer at the end of his all-too-brief life.

The singer, Charles Blandy (below), joined D’Amato in a deeply involving performance. His lyric tenor voice is flexible, with particularly fine German diction and a capacity for subtle variations in the moods of the individual songs. The pianist was a sensitive partner whose careful support offered a musical dimension of its own. The texts and translations were provided to the audience, allowing full immersion in these songs.

All of this music came from Schubert’s later years, when the composer, knowing that he was soon to die, concentrated his thinking so poignantly.

In bypassing the larger of the final works, too, this program stressed personal intimacy and demonstrated that Schubert’s reflections on the human condition do, indeed, make his music “necessary.”

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