Saturday, November 5, 2016

Schumann, Shostakovich, Scherzi, and Scales

Tomorrow I have the pleasure of playing not one, but two of the great piano quintets in a recital with North Shore Chamber Music. The piano quintet (piano + string quartet) has always been the ideal ensemble for my tastes, although composers have written many more piano trios (piano + violin + cello) and many, many more string quartets. The trio is a more practical combination for living rooms (really the primary venue for nineteenth century chamber music), and the string quartet is more perfectly balanced and avoids the annoying problems of making string players match the compromised tuning of a piano. (By the way, I couldn't care less about those problems!)

But the piano quintet offers more possibilities for heroic, grandly scaled drama, especially pitting the keyboard against the quartet. And, for whatever reason, it has inspired some of the most inspired works in the chamber music canon, perhaps because the ensemble size pushes composers to combine the best of the chamber music spirit with the ambitions of larger-scaled works like symphonies and concerti.

I'll confess that my absolute favorite quintet belongs to Brahms, but the Schumann is right behind with Dvorak's, all probably falling easily within my unpublished "50 Greatest Pieces of All Time" list. (Brahms is Top 10.) The Shostakovich is newer to me, and has a few quirky elements that still mystify me a bit, but it is deeply moving, strikingly original and thoroughly entertaining.

Tomorrow's recital pairs Shostakovich and Schumann, with the more modern work going first, in part because it has such a gentle, almost "lullaby-like" ending (one of its quirks). The two quintets make for a nice contrast: Shostakovich's five-movement structure is often moody, sometimes violent, sometimes sardonic, and particularly creative in the way the composer mixes and matches the instruments. Schumann's quintet is more tightly constructed, and though there is some definite pathos in the funereal second movement, the other three movements are among his most joyful and exuberant creations.

The great choreographer Mark Morris has apparently staged the Schumann quintet, although I  regrettably haven't been able to find any video. However, I love this description from critic Terry Teachout, who ranks Morris's dance as a masterpiece:
...toward the end of the last movement...Schumann launches a fugue-like musical episode and the dancers run out from the wings and start to embrace one another. Right then, I knew Morris had “solved” the dance–that he had successfully worked out its internal logic and was demonstrating the solution on stage–and my eyes immediately filled with tears.
That fugal episode (which you can hear at 27:26 of this video) combines the themes of the first and last movements, and is indeed as life-affirming as music can be. It's interesting that for Schumann, the fugue idea is used as a kind of summation; although the various instruments do present these themes in contrapuntal succession, the effect is one of unification. On the other hand, the entire second movement of Shostakovich's quintet is a fully worked-out fugue in which the individual voices seem to be wandering on their own separate paths. It's true that this is partly the difference between a major key "fugue-like passage" in a fast tempo vs. a minor key, slow and extended fugue, but it's also true that Shostakovich tends to treat his five players more as individuals, and he has a flair for expressing the feeling of isolation in sound. (Incidentally, the subject of this fugue sounds a lot like the haunting primary theme of John Corigliano's score for The Red Violin.)

But my favorite connection between these works is this: they feature two of the best scherzo movements ever! I first heard Schumann's scherzo in a scene from a documentary about the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in which all semi-finalists were required to perform either the Schumann, the Dvorak, or the Brahms. The scene was beautifully edited so that it cut back and forth among various contestants playing this scherzo with the Tokyo String Quartet. I fell in love with it right away, and never get tired of this manic celebration of that simplest of musical building blocks: THE SCALE. You can see exactly what I mean in this amazing visualization. (I know I keep using the word "favorite" in this post, but I think this is my favorite music visualization ever! Often graphical visualizations fail to capture important subtleties of harmony which are so essential to how music expresses meaning, but all those criss-crossing scales jump right off the screen below.)

The Shostakovich scherzo, which I first heard played by students at my daughter's summer music camp, is just as memorable, also based on fairly simple building blocks, including plenty of scales. Beginning around the 0:28 mark below, the pianist sounds like a student in a conservatory doing his exercises:

Speaking of students practicing, here's some slice-of-life video of me playing ping-pong with my son while a camp pianist diligently drills some ping-pongy passages from this scherzo in the background. Nothing much happens in the video, but it reminds me how much I love musical fragments - and it reminds me I should go back to practicing NOW.

Anyway, if you've got nothing else to do tomorrow afternoon at 3, come hear us!


RudigerVT said...

Michael, thank you for yet another lucid and generous posting. It makes me wistful. I'ms sure--I'm sure--that you can and do pound out the power chords on the Schumann. In our music making, you were relegated to the Gerald Moore, "am I playing too loud?" background. And yet, it was one of the most satisfying partnerships of my career.

Having said that, this is the kettlebell school of chamber music: let me hurl an iron ball your way. It's thrilling.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting your musings- - pleasure to play with you again today :) STLcello