Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Schubert in the style of Kubrick

Franz Schubert: Piano Trios, D. 929 and D. 897

"A Trio by Schubert passed across the musical world like some angry comet in the sky," wrote Robert Schumann, and his brilliant hyperbole manages somehow to seriously under-sell this amazing work, the second Piano Trio, D. 929, written in Schubert's penultimate year. It's angry and powerful, yes, but it's so much more than that. The full musical and emotional range and ambiguity of this extraordinary work of genius becomes clear after listening a number of times to this superb new disc from the Danish group Trio Vitruvi. The group uses the Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the work, which contains additional material not included in the version published in 1828 (which was incidentally the only publication of any of his works outside of Austria during the composer's lifetime). And their passionate, controlled performance contains all of the musical innovation and emotional nuance that Schubert had developed in a lifetime as a composer, short as it was.

A digression: the second movement Andante con moto was used by Stanley Kubrick in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of the greatest uses of classical music in all cinema.

"I think", says Kubrick in a revealing interview with Michel Ciment, "that silent films got a lot more things right than talkies".  This scene is a perfect example. One of the many extraordinary things about it is Kubrick's long, slow build-up to the kiss. Kubrick has his own "heavenly lengths", the phrase Mendelssohn coined when talking about Schubert. How many directors could have kept our interest in such a simple scene for a full four minutes? Best of all is Ryan O'Neill's determined little march in the courtyard to embrace Marisa Berenson, in time to Schubert and reminiscent of all the marching to war that's taken place in the film.
MC: Did you have Schubert's Trio in mind while preparing and shooting this particular scene?
SK: No, I decided on it while we were editing. Initially, I thought it was right to use only eighteenth-century music. But sometimes you can make ground-rules for yourself which prove unnecessary and counter-productive. I think I must have listened to every LP you can buy of eighteenth-century music. One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love-themes in eighteenth-century music. So eventually I decided to use Schubert's Trio in E Flat, Opus 100, written in 1828. It's a magnificent piece of music and it has just the right restrained balance between the tragic and the romantic without getting into the headier stuff of later Romanticism.
Schubert and Kubrick both do something quite wonderful with the main theme of the Andante, which is based on the Swedish folk song Se solen sjunker (The sun is down).  The composer brings back this music in his final movement, and the director does the same in his:

Though he was only 31 when he died, Schubert's own awareness of his likely demise in the late 1820s resulted, I think, in a kind of late style. His profound understanding of human relationships, musical innovation (both Beethoven's and his own), and issues relating to death and dying had much to do, I believe, with his lifelong connection to poetry and the development of the German lied, so much of which came from Schubert himself. As early as 1822 he wrote this about "My Dream":
For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.
Ian Bostridge uses this as an epigraph for his marvellous book Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. It's telling that such a broad range of scholarship and deep understanding by a great performer and academic should be required to do justice to a single work of Schubert's, his song cycle Winterreise, which was published the same year as the 2nd Piano Trio. It's impressive that the young musicians of Trio Vitruvi have made such a strong case for the latter work in its original form, uncut and undiluted. It's a positively Kubrickian performance.

This disc will be released on April 20, 2018.

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