Thursday, July 16, 2020

Elegiac Masterpieces Livestreamed

Steven Vanhauwaert.


Schumann, Busoni, and Debussy: Steven Vanhauwaert

The reactions of musicians to the global scything of live music with audiences by the Covid-19 pandemic has been hugely varied. Of necessity, large organizations have mostly resorted to streaming performances from past concerts, with very occasionally new performances made in venues empty but for the musicians themselves and recording staff. The inherent flexibility of individuals and chamber groups has, however, enabled more proactive attempts to fill the void.

Here in southern California’s South Bay area, a particularly grievous loss has been the multiplicity of chamber music series, some but not all under the auspices of Classical Crossroads Inc., so it is a particular pleasure to be able to review one recent livestreamed recital that would have graced any of their events, and which (for me) entirely overcame the pitfalls of trivialized or hackneyed repertoire, performance fallibility, and acoustic/recording challenges.

One might also mention awkwardnesses in how to talk to an unseen, remote audience, but the pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s spoken introductions to the items in his recital streamed-as-live from his home on Sunday, July 12—Brahms’ Schumann Variations, Busoni’s Bach Fantasia, and two from Debussy’s second book of Préludes—avoided any, being models of engaging lucidity. More importantly, these works, mostly tending to the elegiac in mood, were as finely played as they were mutually complementary.

Brahms in 1855.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9,  composed in May-June 1854, was only his second work in variation form, and it is one of his earliest masterpieces. Brahms takes his theme from the fourth of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter ("Colored Leaves") Op. 99, and carries through its mood of wistful melancholy—the marking is Ziemlich langsam (moderately slow)—seamlessly into the first of his 16 variations.

Thereafter the mood does lighten and the pace pick up; there’s plenty of dynamic and tempo contrast with the fast Variations 5, 6, 9 and 13, but throughout Brahms keeps pulling back to that opening reflectiveness and pathos, and the seal is set when he ends with the very antithesis of the bravura that typically crowns variations-sets. The hushed, spare, somber brevity of the final Adagio Variation 16 clearly expresses his feelings for the Schumanns, with whom Brahms was deeply involved, in the wake of Robert’s failed suicide attempt only a couple of months before Brahms composed his Op. 9.

All this was fully conveyed in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s devoted performance, recorded in clear, faithful sound on his own Steinway, and concluding with a carefully gauged slow fade to black before he returned to sketch in Busoni’s career as a piano virtuoso, as a transcriber, and as a composer in his own right. As Mr. Vanhauwaert noted, the Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, BV. 253, composed in June 1909, is “a mix of both”, quoting several Bach chorale preludes but clothing and linking them with his own transitions and “rather quirky harmonic language.”

Ferruccio Busoni.
Though falling into several fairly clearly defined sections, Busoni’s Fantasia, like Brahms' Schumann Variations, has overall a somber elegiac quality, right from its arpeggiated Molto tranquillo e gravement opening, full of quiet portent in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. And again like the Brahms, it ends not with a bang but with a rapt withdrawal, tranquillissimo, reflecting the dedication at the work’s head to the memory of Busoni’s father, who had died that May.

Suitably atmospheric accounts of Brouillards ("Mist") and Bruyères ("Heather"), the first and fifth of Debussy’s Préludes, Book Two, L. 123, concluded a recital that could only have been improved upon if it had taken place in the usual location and before the normal enthusiastic, capacity audience for Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s “Second Sundays at Two” series. Let’s hope that the coming year sees all of us, and especially Mr. Vanhauwaert, back there. Meanwhile, and most fortunately, you can enjoy this recital online by clicking here or on the image at the top.


 Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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