The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
3 Comments

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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music news: Famed German baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau is dead at 86. Listen, be moved and leave a message.

May 19, 2012
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music world is in mourning today.

Yesterday, on Friday, May 18, 2012, the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below, at 80 in his Berlin home) died at 86, just a few weeks short of his 87th birthday.

I don’t find much to say.

One thing is that I regret I never got to hear him in person. What a treat that would have been, since his ability to communicate the feeling and meaning of a song without cheap or melodramatic theatrics to an audience was unsurpassed.

I also want to say we are lucky to have had him with us as long as we did. He was notoriously heavy cigarette smoker, and an unrepentant one at that. He has been quoted as saying that his smoking added something intangible to his superb tonal quality. Well, may or maybe not. Who am I to argue with him?

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was really one of the vocalists who seemed to sing as naturally and effortlessly as the rest of us breathe and talk. You never heard audible breathing, his line is so seamless. Just listen to his flowing and uninterrupted phrasing. Below, he is singing Schubert’s “In Spring” with pianist Sviatoslav Richter in 1978.

And his diction was unsurpassed. Whether his diction came from his total devotion to the text, or the his devotion to the text arose from his unsurpassed diction, I can’t tell. It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg issue. But does it matter, really? Whatever he did and however he did it, it worked – for many, many decades. (Below is the young Fischer-Dieskau performing in the 1950s.)

Longevity was another part of his miracle. Fischer-Dieskau recorded the great repertoire standards of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler  many times – entire cycles three or four times with different pianists and at different ages. His prolific career spanned 50 years and he produced hundreds of recordings in his lifetime.

It is a measure of his greatness how quickly condolences, tributes and testimonial sites sprouted up on the web and especially at YouTube.

So here are links to two of the sites with the news and factual accounts of his death:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/baritone-dietrich-fischer-dieskau-has-died-aged-86

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/05/18/152991743/remembering-a-born-god-among-singers-dietrich-fischer-dieskau

Here is a link to a wonderfully candid interview the singer gave to The Guardian when he turned 80:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/may/20/classicalmusicandopera2

And here are links to YouTube videos that were put on the day Dietrich Fischer died and where you can leave comments — as well as herein the COMMENTS section of this blog. Tell us your favorite song he sang and what you liked most about his singing and what it was like to hear him live.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-iiSAjh2U4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLcc0X4pjDA

And here is Schubert’s entire song cycle “Winterreise” with Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Alfred Brendel. 


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