Los Angeles hosts a Schubertiade, plus P.D.Q.’s Alter Ego.

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

The wind was howling, the sky was a gloomy dark grey, the thermometer was stuck at 28 degrees, and the snow came tumbling down, coating the trees in the front yard with white crystals better suited for the dead of winter than the middle of spring …  Sounds like the start of a bad novel, but that was the scene outside my front glass door a couple of weekends ago as I left Frazier Park (elev. 5,000 feet)  to attend the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Schubertiade in Walt Disney Concert Hall the week of April 15.  Being snowed in around the middle of April is not the way things are supposed to be, even at 5,000 feet, but with a pair of Schubert song cycles on the agenda that coming week – including the pertinently wintry Winterreise –  it served a purpose.  Listening to one of the Fischer-Dieskau recordings of the piece – one of his last, made at age 65 when his voice was a craggy yet still communicative facsimile of its younger self – and staring out the window at the landscape definitely hammers some points home.

Outside my window in Frazier Park, CA in the middle of April – nothing like a little authentic atmosphere to hear Winterreise by. (c) Richard S. Ginell

Lieder recitals once were a common occurence in Southern California; back some 30 years when L.A. lacked a major opera company, that was the only way you could hear most of the leading singers of the time – with just piano, usually at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.  However, unless memory or sources fail me, I do not recall a week like this one, not even during the Schubert anniversary years 1978 and 1997. One where you could hear two of the leading Schubertians of our time performing the two big narrative song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, with the pianist then taking the baton for some rarely-performed orchestrations of lieder by blue-chip names – Brahms, Reger, Webern – and finally the Ninth Symphony.  The Philharmonic called its festival Sublime Schubert – and for once, the hype was right on the money, for this was a Schubertiade for the ages.

Baritone Matthias Goerne and the protean pianist/conductor Christoph Eschenbach are virtually joined at the hip in this music – and knowing that, they take chances.  Schöne Müllerin clocked in at a staggering slow 78 1/2 minutes (the norm is around 62), with the final song lasting virtually twice as long as usual. At first, I thought Eschenbach was too busy fiddling around with the articulation from strophe to strophe, and Goerne seemed a bit too heroic a singer to portray the naïve lad with a huge crush on the beautiful, thoughtless miller girl who preferred someone more masculine (a hunter, naturally). But the performance found its bearings as it went, particularly the run-together stretch of songs 13 through 15 where the performance flowed with a rushing rage. Dragging tempos and all, I found it quite moving, although several dedicated Schubertians whom I talked to were not that happy with it.

Winterreise was even better;  Goerne was in noticeably stronger, more resonant voice, and though the tempos again were on the slow side (81:40, the norm being around 72-74 minutes), this moody, often bleak soundscape could take such a sehr langsam approach in stride.  Not only that, Goerne and Eschenbach were more faithful to the score in Winterreise, the rhythms were steadier while still allowing for a probing interpretation.  The shattering final song, “Der Leiermann,”  became freer and slower as it unfolded, virtually melting away as it should into icy silence. No complaints from the faithful this time; all were floored by the performance.

For me, the Goerne/Eschenbach team peaked in the seven announced orchestrated lieder – plus two encores – two nights later, with Eschenbach following his singer from the LA Philharmonic podium as if one mind was in two bodies.  Using a chamber-sized orchestra, Eschenbach caressed and shaded every phrase and note while Goerne was in the best voice so far, lending even more expression to a couple of songs from the cycles in their orchestrated versions, “Der Wegweiser” and “Tränenregen,” than he did with the originals. While the personalities of the composers can be felt in the orchestrations, there is still no doubt as to who wrote the music.

Except for a straight-ahead Finale, Eschenbach’s ideas about tempo in the Ninth Symphony were constantly in flux.  You would think he was establishing a steady tempo in the first movement and then out of nowhere comes a weird luftpause, after which you could feel the pace getting slower and slower.  But Eschenbach’s tour was always absorbing – and better this than some metronomic amble-through where no one wins.  And ultimately Schubert left the building head held high in triumphant, sunlit C major – so much so that I nearly forgot about the wintry gloom of April that I left back home.

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The L.A.-based Armadillo String Quartet has been in business now for 32 years – making it now one of the longest-playing quartets around – and the fearless foursome have been championing the music of Peter Schickele with annual concerts for the last 22 of those years.  Schickele, of course, is the fellow who invented P.D.Q. Bach, but is also the composer of a large quantity of so-called serious music that is in its way, the product of the same free-thinking personality.  Two sides of the same coin, you could say (with that in mind, I once did a hilarious two-part phone interview with him – Part One with Prof. Schickele and the second part with composer Schickele).

Schickele is still at it at 76, presenting the Armadillos and guest pianists Gavin and Joanne Pearce Martin with a batch of new music in Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church three days after the Schubertiade ended.  Last year, he wrote his first piano trio – named “Alaria” after the group that gave the premiere – where amidst the Brahmsian flow and some running piano boogie, you can hear a chord sequence that was inspired by Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader” from Kind Of Blue (but that’s OK, since Miles himself stole the credit for a lot of the music on that album from his pianist, Bill Evans). Schickele’s string quartet count has reached six – and the Armadillo’s world premiere performance of No. 6, subtitled “Shadow Mountain,” revealed a bucolic tone poem of a lazy vacation in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, ending in a raucous “Hootenanny” where Schickele juggles “Old Joe Clark,” “You Are My Sunshine” and other such tunes. The great thing about Schickele’s music is that while his peripheral vision is wide enough to take in just about anything he sees, whether high or low, it all blends into his personal signature – a friendly, flowing, folky feeling of Americana all his own.  And he’s not afraid to latch onto a good melody when he finds one – love the repeated swinging tune in the fourth movement of Music for an Evening. As always, the good Perfessor was there to introduce each piece, with just an occasional offhand quip or two to remind us of the other side of this unique coin.