Monday, November 24, 2008

Ave Maria

On performing Schubert and Schumann songs at the Phillips Collection (Washington DC), Second Presbytarian Church (Baltimore), and the Cultural Center (Chicago).

There are moments in our lives that are totally unexpected and yet so important and meaningful. They energize us beyond any predictions, and although few and far in between, these special moments are an essential part of our lives.

Magical moments - their essence is also in their brevity. Truth be said, I rarely know when they will appear, envelope me, clean my thoughts, clear my hopes, and re-direct me towards the goals which I laid in front of me.

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for three concerts which mixed songs of Schubert and Schumann with solo and chamber music repertoire. I believe that every great pianist must posses a strong urge to accompany singers - to support, to provide a cushion for the most natural of musical instruments - the human voice - to emerge, soar and bloom... then land. In addition to that, I must add, the repertoire is second to none.

As it happened, the day prior to our last concert, we - soprano Hyunah Yu, and I - were rehearsing leisurely at the Cultural center in Chicago, one of this city's many unique landmarks. Our rehearsal began with five Schubert songs, and ended with five Schumann songs.

Playing through these miniature masterpieces one by one, indulging in the sound of the language, admiring the poetry and above all listening, observing, re-living the way Schubert and Schumann painted these words, these sentences, these feelings / emotions in music..... it was easy to forget oneself in the space between what is conscious and what is unconscious. Time and space were of no importance. We were floating in a special place.

Schubert's Lachen und Weinen ("Laughing & Crying") - so seductively simple. A beautiful melodic line that changes its color, its reflection each time the accompaniment moves between major and minor, softer or louder. Im Früling ("In Spring") starts up as another strophic song, then transforms completely when the poet ceases to describe nature, and immerses himself in describing her - her image. At that moment Schubert gives me the most achingly beautiful melodic coloratura, floating above and below, inside and outside the melodic line sang by Hyunah. The thorny Heidenröslein ("The Briar-Rose") comes next. My role in this song is mainly "um pa, um pa..." However, finding that perfect balance between the simple and the sublime, the meaningful and the meaningless creates the miracle. Heimliches Lieben ("Loving in Secret") with its broad melodies is a challenge considering the high passion that the words suggest: "thy lips touch me";"trembling lift my breast";"my eye's aflame"... Are you sure this is loving in secret...?
And then Suleika ("Suleika") which has a much darker tone than the previous songs. With Schubert, major is at times sadder than minor. The b minor key of this song's breathless, worrisome first part changes to B major and even the slightest of hopes is crushed. It hearts.
Each song is an entity - its subject matter, its sub-context, its philosophical overtones. These profound musical jewels capture the widest array in our eternal emotional resources.

Onto our Schumann group. How different is this composer from the other in his choice as well as interpretation of great German poetry. Schumann's hyper sensitive changes of moods are reflected in his songs, some are as short as one page. His demons / imaginary friends are an integral part of the music. Ambiguity is central to the understanding of this enigmatic composer. I think Schubert allows us to concentrate on the poem through his music, whereas Schumann forces us to listen to the music through the poem!

In Du bist wie eine Blume ("You are like a Flower") the singer tells us one story, while the piano's background and foreground reveals the hidden subtext. Der Nußbaum (The Walnut Tree) gives us with its ongoing repeated refrain the sense and sensibility we always crave for. Liebeslied ("Love song") gets to our place of raw emotions and Röselein, Röselein! ("Little rose, Little rose!") again takes us on a wild ride within Schumann's multiple personalities. Alas, Widmung ("Dedication") closes our second group of songs, and with it our program. They say that "good composers imitate, but great composers steal..." At the end of this most passionate song / gift, which Schumann wrote to Clara, he quotes the famous Ave Maria of Schubert. A truly stroke of genius. Our rehearsal came to an end. Or has it?

All this was just setting the stage for what was to come next. I took back the Schubert album and found the original Ave Maria, the source. After all, couldn't a performer, in this case - your truly - ask for an enocre? Hyunah came closer so we could look at the music together. She apologized in advance if it will turn out that she would not sing the entire song, to save her strength... but she did! She could not stop and neither could I.

It was dark outside, most people went home already, and yet the few that were in the building gathered around us. We started our evening with Schubert, continued with Schumann quoting Schubert, then decided to end with bringing the former back to life. I actually think that it was he that brought us back to life. I played the song at a slightly slower tempo then usual. Well, I did not want this to end. I felt so privileged to have had this magical moment of intimacy... of ecstasy! The gentle melodic curves of Ave Maria repeat three times. Within me, it still goes on.

When the last notes of the heavenly sound of B major evaporated, I got up and hugged my partner for this most uplifting experience. Thank you, Hyunah!

Evening descended, silence was all around, our souls and the music that surrounded us became just for a moment something that we could not only feel, we could touch.
And then, it disappeared.

Alon Goldstein

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