Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Faculty Artist Series recitalist was violinist Ian Swensen. The first half of the evening was a duo performance with Faculty pianist Paul Hersh. The second half consisted entirely of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 piano quartet in C minor with Hersh moving over to viola and joining Bonnie Hampton on cello and Eric Zivian on piano.
Over his past Faculty Artist Series concerts, Swensen has revealed interest in a broad span of repertoire. This time he limited himself to the opposite ends of the nineteenth century, with Brahms at the beginning of the final quarter and Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert securely in the first quarter. What is somewhat interesting is that both of those earlier pieces were published as works for pianoforte and violin (in that order), Beethoven’s Opus 96 sonata in G major, completed in 1812 and first published by Steiner in 1816 and Schubert’s D. 408 sonatina in G minor, composed in April of 1816 but not published by Diabelli until 1836, several years after Schubert’s death.
It may also be worth speculating whether Schubert was aware of the publication of Opus 96 when he began work on D. 408. His admiration for Beethoven may have been one reason why he called his piece a sonatina. The preceding year, 1815, saw two attempts at a four-movement piano sonata, neither of which was completed (or at least survives in complete form); so he may have felt more than a little humbled by the shadow of Beethoven as a sonata composer. It is also possible that, because Schubert was not yet twenty when he wrote D. 408, he saw it more as a “warm-up” exercise without considering the possibility of publication (or, perhaps, even performance).
Nevertheless, it is a fascinating example of Schubert’s explorations in a minor key. Each movement has its own distinctive rhetorical stance, including the shift to G major for the Andante. One may also appreciate the dramatic qualities in the music, as if Schubert were exploring how to refashion his approaches to interpreting text for song into a strictly instrumental domain. Some of those qualities emerged in last night’s performance, although the overall impression was that both Hersh and Swensen were more focused on the compositional logic of the music than in its dramatic or rhetorical qualities. The result was a straightforward account that never quite got the juices flowing.
The Beethoven selection has its own interesting background. Beethoven certainly was not finding his way when he wrote it in 1812. He had already written nine other such duo sonatas, but they were all composed during the rather short period between 1798 and 1803. It was almost as if Beethoven felt he had said all he had to say about this particular genre and then changed his mind in 1812.
Another possibility is that 1811 was the year in which Beethoven composed his Opus 97 piano trio in B-flat major, called the “Archduke” because it was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria. The title page for the Opus 96 sonata has a similar dedication. Perhaps Rudolf was so pleased with the trio that he suggested that Beethoven work on a new duo sonata.
From a musical point of view the Opus 96 sonata reflects the same positively spirited mind that is encountered in the Opus 97 trio. Indeed, much of this sonata offers up a healthy share of examples of Beethoven’s wit, particularly in the Scherzo movement and the set of variations that follow in the final movement. Here again, however, the resulting performance seemed more focused on the letter of the text, rather than any of those exuberant spirits. Indeed, there were moments of uncertainty in Hersh’s pedaling suggesting that he and Swensen had not yet found the right common ground for expressiveness, particularly in those last two movements.
However, if rhetoric was in short supply during the first half, it played out in full force during the second. Brahms himself suggested that his Opus 60 was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Werther character, driven to suicide by frustrated love. All four movements of this piano quartet are permeated with intense dramatism; and, since the piano was Brahms’ instrument, much of that dramatism falls to the keyboard. Indeed, of the three piano quartets, this one runs the greatest risk of being played as a concerto for piano and very small orchestra.
Zivian did not always try to lessen that risk. While he tended to balance against the string players during most of the softer passages, his left hand seems never to have met a bass passage that could not do with intense reinforcement. Thus, there were times when the more lyric qualities of Hampton’s cello line were overshadowed by Zivian’s left hand. Fortunately, her passionate solo at the beginning of the third movement did not suffer this fate, allowing that music to shine as yet another example of Brahms’ ability to provide the cello with the juiciest passages in the score.