SCHENECTADY -- Sunday afternoon's Union College Concert Series at Memorial Chapel was an homage to the genius of Franz Schubert. British tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Jonathan Biss gave masterful performances of two of Schubert's last works: his Piano Sonata in A Major and his song cycle "Schwanengesang" ("Swan Song").
Schubert was suffering terribly from complications from syphilis in 1828 but in August of that year he turned his attention to writing seven songs to text by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860). In October he wrote six more songs to text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and one to text by Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875). Meanwhile, in September, he'd churned out three large scale piano sonatas, which includes the A Major. In November, Schubert was gone. He was 31.
After his death, his brother took the songs to his publisher who published them under the "Swan Song" title in 1829. But his piano sonatas, which were considered masterpieces, mystified admirers as they were unlike classical sonatas as typified by Beethoven. They seemed headed to obscurity until piano virtuoso Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) championed them. Today, they are part of any pianist's repertoire.
The concert began with Biss.
From the first notes, he coaxed the tone with a liquid touch and used a spare pedal. His phrasing was very sensitive and musical. What equally impressed was how vigorous, joyous and life-affirming the music was. In three of the movements, Schubert's lyricism was sunny, even whimsical, with technical passages that sparkled with happiness. Biss delivered with a focused intensity. But he was especially effective in the very moving, slow Andante which is considered the heart of the piece.
Although it begins with a simple, melancholy, transparent waltz that Biss sang beautifully, its center was one of anger and anguish with exploding chords, and long, fast scalar passages. It was as if Schubert was saying he would not go quietly into that dark final night. The waltz returned in a kind of undulating, Beethovian mode before quietly ending.
The large crowd gave Biss a standing ovation.
Padmore told the audience that it was the song cycle's fourteenth song, "Die Taubenpost" ("Pigeon Post") that depicted the true spirit of the work.
"It's his message from beyond the grave of this most human composer," Padmore said. "The word Sehnsucht, which means longing. It's the underlying theme of the cycle. Longing for love."
Padmore, who sang with impeccable German, is a master storyteller. He gave every song its due inflecting his voice with heavy nuance, sometimes intoning more than singing in a conversational way. He stood in the curve of the piano and moved only a bit, but his hand gestures and face conveyed the emotion and message. For Padmore, words were the thing. His voice, which went from baritone darkness to soaring light tenor, colored every phrase. It was like watching a great actor who could also sing superbly.
The first group of songs were about hope and love. The last group was of loss and anguish. The final song was sweet lightness. In all of them, Biss was hand-in-glove with Padmore and provided a masterful accompaniment. The audience, which had been galvanized, jumped to its feet with loud applause. Obviously pleased, Padmore gave Biss a hug.
The next concerts in the series feature venerated pianist Mitsuko Uchida in recital March 27 and with German clarinetist Jorg Widmann April 1. The only other venue this season that has two Uchida concerts is Carnegie Hall.