The major work on the program for last night’s Old First Concerts recital by the Delphi Trio (violinist Liana Bérubé, cellist Michelle Kwon, and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur) at Old First Church was Franz Schubert’s D. 898 trio in B-flat major. Schubert composed this piece in 1827, possibly late in the year, which would put it right on the threshold of the final twelve months of his life. As has been previously discussed, Schubert’s reaction to the physical illness that plagued him was one of prodigious productivity. This was not just a matter of the sheer numbers of works but also of his daring approaches to prolongation that resulted in works of almost inconceivable (at least for the early nineteenth century) durations.
Those durations have sparked no end of opinions, covering the full gamut from admiration to reprobation. Last night LaDeur decided to take on this issue with some introductory remarks prior to the performance of D. 898. He began by citing the pianist Alfred Brendel, who saw Ludwig van Beethoven as a master architect of musical form and structure, against whom Brendel declared Schubert to be a sleepwalker. Ironically, LaDeur also cited the famous story about Igor Stravinsky telling friends that listening to Schubert would put him to sleep; but then he would awaken and find himself in Heaven. Stravinsky may or may not have realized that he was cribbing Robert Schumann, who had praised Schubert’s “heavenly length.”
(On a personal note, I have to say that Brendel was probably not the best authority on Schubert. Back when I was working in Santa Barbara, I made a special drive to Pasadena just to listen to Brendel play the D. 960 sonata in B-flat major in a recital at the California Institute of Technology. It was, by a long shot, the most disappointing account of that sonata that I have encountered. The performance could best be described as Brendel sleepwalking his way through the score.)
If LaDeur sounded more than a little apologetic about the “heavenly length” of D. 898, he had no need to do so. Last night’s performance may have been lengthy by the clock, but there was never any sense that either Schubert or the performers were going on for too long. The fact is that we now live in a culture that has become more accustomed to the extended durations of Gustav Mahler, and even the more glacial progressions through the landscapes of Anton Bruckner are being better received in the concert hall. It is not the clock that matters but the individual subjective sense of time passing or, in some extraordinary cases, standing still.
“Landscape” is as appropriate a metaphor for D. 898 as it is for a Bruckner symphony. Pierre Boulez and, before him, Pierre Monteux distinguished themselves through their ability to approach an extended duration of music as a landscape of climaxes of greater and lesser intensity, always making sure that the most significant climax should make the deepest impression on the listener. Here in San Francisco Michael Tilson Thomas has been particularly adept at this skill in his ability to make every performance of a Mahler symphony sound fresh, no matter how many previous performances it has received.
Last night Delphi performed D. 898 as if they had put considerable thought into its landscape. Thus, while there was no avoiding awareness of Schubert’s proclivity for repetition, the context behind those repetitions had its own sense of progressing across that landscape of climaxes. Thus, the metaphor of the landscape played out in time as a metaphor of journey; and, by the final cadence in the concluding (fourth) movement, there was a clear sense of consummation, rather than mere completion. Sleepwalking was never part of this particular equation!
The first half of the program offered an equally challenging landscape, Bedřich Smetana’s only piano trio, his Opus 15 in G minor. (Smetana composed very few chamber music compositions.) He wrote this in 1855 after the death of his daughter Bedřiška. In the first movement he almost seems to be responding to tragedy with a monologue, realized through all three instruments, that struggles with different ways of coming to terms with the event. Similarly, the concluding (third) movement distinguishes itself through the contrast of two strikingly different themes and a finale in which the almost Hegelian opposition is finally resolved through synthesis. Here, again, the metaphor of journey was clearly in play; and Delphi assumed the role of “tour guide” as effectively as in their approach to Schubert.
These two rather major undertakings were introduced by a far lighter “overture,” Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XV/6 trio in F major. This is a short piece, composed in 1784 and consisting of only an opening Vivace and a light-hearted Tempo di menuetto. It was dedicated to the Countess Marianne von Witzay niece of Haydn’s master (remember that musicians working for nobility were of the servant class) Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy. It was clearly intended as a pleasant diversion, as well as a platform on which Haydn could exercise his wit. Last night it made for an effective “warm-up” for the more intense remainder of the program.