PCMS presents pianist Jonathan Biss and tenor Mark Padmore

Schubert: the original berserker

Introducing his performance of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Schwanengesang, with pianist Jonathan Biss, tenor Mark Padmore remarked that this composer was “the musician’s best friend.” This is certainly true for Lieder singers, because Schubert is incomparably the world’s greatest composer of art songs. I believe he is also the listener’s best friend.

British tenor Mark Padmore. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Chamber Music Society)

When late is early

No composer projects a greater sense of intimacy in his art or offers more sense of being present for you alone, no matter how large the audience. As the other work in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s final program in its Departure and Discovery series, the Piano Sonata in A (D. 959), made clear, Schubert’s complex music can also contain terrifying depths. But it is pellucid and direct in a way that not even Mozart achieves.

As I pointed out in a previous review, “lateness” in art is a tricky concept. Schubert’s last music, written before his death at age 31, differs greatly from Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, composed at age 84. Schubert, in the last year of his terribly brief life, was ailing but prodigious, turning out a staggering a number of outright masterpieces: the Schwanengesang, the Piano Sonatas D. 958 through 960, the Mass in E-Flat, and the String Quintet in C. Schubert died on November 19, 1828, his Wunderjahr still incomplete on the calendar. None, apart from the Schwanengesang—“Swansong”—suggests a composer going anywhere except to new triumphs that, had Schubert lived to realize them, would have surely transformed 19th-century Romanticism.

"Zero to berserk"

Schubert’s D. 959 Sonata, at 40 minutes, is among his longest and most leisurely, and anyone wishing to approach it must take account of Schubert’s distinctive approach both to time and structure.  Jonathan Biss is a genuine Schubertian in that sense, with a subtle, supple feel for how the music unfolds. I wanted a bolder approach to the Allegro’s heroic principal theme and greater daring in the amazing middle section of the Andantino, but Biss made his own argument. His account of this (untitled) middle section in the program notes reads, “Hell breaks loose straight away. We go from zero to berserk in a matter of measures.” This suggests that the performer needs to bring some madness of his own to the music, but, for all its fireworks, I felt a restraint in Biss’s playing; perhaps his idea of “berserk” differs from mine.

Structurally, the movement suggests a progression into a deep emotional fugue with a (partial) recovery, for in its A-B-A form the opening section has deep gravity, the middle represents the profoundest of ruptures, and the return of the opening material, in broken chords, suggests a spirit once again striving for conscious command of itself but bearing a terrible, unresolved wound. Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude has a similar form, but shocks less.

The Schwanengesang song cycle (D. 957) is a composite with a setting of seven poems by the German Romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab, followed by six by Heinrich Heine and a final one, “Pigeon Post,” by Johann Gabriel Seidl, a younger contemporary of the composer whose work was added by Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, possibly to take some of the edge off Heine’s dark songs. Such was Schubert’s genius that he could transform even mediocre texts into dramatic gems, while in dealing with profound works he wrought small miracles of tragic art.

British tenor Mark Padmore, Musical America’s 2016 Vocalist of the Year, has both the sensitivity and presence of a great Schubert singer and, without ever forcing his texts, gave a deeply and cumulatively moving account of them. The late David Oistrakh once compared the solo part of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto to a great Shakespearean role, and Mr. Padmore conveyed the same sensation, of a Hamlet-like performer delivering one magnificent monologue after another until the human condition had been fully spoken for. It was a great and compelling hour of music and drama, and Jonathan Biss’s accompaniment left me with no quibble; it was superb.

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