Monday, August 07, 2006

The quieter passions

A friend of mine was (is?) wont to say "My Jesus is a quiet Jesus." Now, he used that expression to pass off all manner of amoral and immoral activities while still remaining ostensibly Christian. However, by way of analogy to that statement, I might say "My deepest pleasures are quiet pleasures."

I refer to my well-closeted taste for Franz Schumann's chamber music (especially his Trios) and Lieder and Robert Schumann's Lieder. This is music of great refinement, great emotional depth, and - mirabile dictu - great subtlety.

For example, Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat (D. 929 for catalogue nerds) is a work that expresses such emotion, such (in Peter Shaffer's words) inexpressible longing, that it is a wonder of the high Romantic period. It has, also, a rhythmic sensibility that could be seen as a cousin to Beethoven's rhythmic wonder, the A-major symphony (Wagner's "very apotheosis of the dance"). The Andante con moto, used to such effect - ironic and otherwise - in Stanley Kubrick's haunting and affecting 1975 film, Barry Lyndon, has as much rhythmic intelligence as the Allegretto from the A-major. It also has the same emotional currency, a quiet - indeed, resigned - sadness. If anyone can listen to the Andante from D. 929, forgetting the Barry Lyndon connection, and not be affected, then I will be amazed. And worried for their soul.

As to his Lieder: Schubert's Schwanengesang is no less emotional, and just as subtle. These are, as the Germans would say, Kunstlieder at their most artistic and expressive. There is, of course, Die schöne Müllerin and the Winterreise, and they are great and heart-felt cycles in their own right. However, I have always preferred and felt more deep affection for the Schwanengesang. For example - and not that the Schwanengesang is a walk in the park - I have always found the Winterreise to be almost too bleak in spots. There are only so many times that one can listen to "Der Leiermann" without having something deep in the psyche break loose. In contrast, the Schwanengesang is just bleak enough to make me feel like I've had a suitably high Romantic experience. No more. No less.

Of Robert Schumann's Kunstlieder, much has already been said - and I doubt I can add much.

Getting down to "brass tacks," and recordings - of the D. 929 Piano Trio, I like the Beaux Arts Trio recording on Philips. Forty years old, it still sounds great, and the interpretation is still quite formidable. It comes on a Philips Duo of the complete Trios, with the Grumiaux Trio turning an equally-good performance of some other works.

Of the collaboration of Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff, I can say only this: their presence can, ipso facto, spur me to buy a disc - unheard and unresearched. Perhaps, only Gerald Moore and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were as sensitive and intelligent a Lieder partnership as Schreier and Schiff. More to the point, too, Peter Schreier is a far better Lieder singer than Fischer-Dieskau. Schreier has an understanding with the text that allows him to interpret and to characterize it without lapsing into Fischer-Dieskau's occasional pedantry and frequent hectoring. Schreier's voice is also, and I know this from a Schumann disc recorded in 2002, when the tenor was 67, far more expressive and beautiful than Fischer-Dieskau's ever was. Save, perhaps, one moment. If you e-mail me about it, I might get into more depth. However, it's late and I've gone on far too long.

Good night. Good morning.


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