Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Faculty Artist Series concert was given by violist Don Ehrlich, accompanied by pianist Miles Graber. Ehrlich introduced it as a program of nineteenth-century viola music; and, more specifically, all three of his selections were composed in the second half of that century. Chronologically the program was framed, appropriately enough, by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms; but both of their compositions were written late in life. These two selections formed the first half of the evening. The second half was devoted to a single viola sonata situated chronologically between the two opening works, Anton Rubinstein’s Opus 49 in F minor.
The program began with Schumann’s Opus 113, composed in March of 1851 and entitled “Märchenbilder” (fairy tale pictures). Ehrlich addressed the question of whether or not the four pieces in this collection correspond to specific fairy tales. He cited the Wikipedia page that claims that the first two movements depict scenes from “Rapunzel,” the third draws upon “Rumpelstiltskin,” and the fourth uses “The Sleeping Beauty” as a source. Ehrlich neglected to mention that the author of these claims attributes them to a section in Schumann’s journals that is “hard to find and not translated into English;” and the Wikipedia editors responded by affixing “” to all relevant passages. One still has to be careful about what one finds on the Internet!
Nevertheless, Ehrlich’s expressiveness certainly lent some credibility to those claims, even if they had more to do with his own approach to interpretation, rather than to any reliable source. One could imagine Rapunzel herself alone in her tower in the opening Nicht schnell (not fast) movement, while the following Lebhaft (lively) movement strongly suggests the prince riding through the forest. While the Wikipedia author has Rumpelstiltskin “dancing outside his house with attendant fairies,” the perpetuum mobile qualities of the Rasch (quick) movement can easily be taken as his spinning straw into gold. That leaves the final piece, marked Langsam, mit melancholischen Ausdruck (slowly, with melancholic expression), whose connection to “The Sleeping Beauty” is little more than remotely suggestive.
More important than whether or not any of these associations are valid was the way Ehrlich used them to frame his approaches to tempo, phrasing, and dynamics. Schumann’s title suggests an exercise in “visualization through music,” so to speak. Ehrlich seemed not only willing to accept this premise but also to validate it by invoking his own rhetorical devices in the course of his performance. The results were, for the most part, convincing and often compelling.
The Brahms selection was the second of his Opus 120 sonatas in the key of E-flat major. The sonatas were originally written in 1894 for the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, but Brahms himself produced transcriptions for viola, altering the score only to accommodate significant differences between the two instruments. It is unclear why Brahms wrote the transcriptions. Perhaps he felt that, having written three sonatas for violin and two for cello that the viola deserved a few of its own. What matters most is whether or not the rearrangement can be performed without reminding the listener of clarinet sonorities, and Ehrlich did a reasonably convincing job of keeping the listener focused on the viola.
Both the Schumann and the Brahms pieces were composed near the end of their respective lives. Schumann composed Opus 113 in 1851, not long before being overcome by madness. Brahms “came out of retirement” to compose his four chamber compositions for clarinet after having listened to Mühlfeld performing. Rubinstein’s sonata, on the other hand, was composed in mid-career. He had established himself as a successful concert pianist and seems to have felt that he deserved the same reputation as a composer.
His Opus 49 is far more “plain speaking” than the works of either Schumann or Brahms; but he showed an interesting flair for the dramatic by presenting his second (Andante) movement with the rhetoric of an operatic recitative. Rubinstein composed twelve operas between 1849 and 1888, mostly dealing with different aspects of Russian life. Opus 49 was composed in 1855. Ehrlich provided a straightforward account, allowing his intermission to provide a satisfactory “buffer” for the more sophisticated efforts of Schumann and Brahms. The result may not have been quite as engaging as the music of the first half, but Ehrlich succeeded in pointing out at least some of the merits in the score.