Schubert at Stanley Park review (Newcastle)

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It’d been quite a while since I’d reviewed classical pianist Geoffrey Saba, so I was pleasantly surprised when I received an invitation to Schubert at Stanley Park. Better yet, it implied an excuse for a long overdue long weekend away, in the vicinity of Newcastle. Newcastle (you exclaim, snobbishly)?! Yes, Newcastle, capital of the Hunter region, where Beaumont Street, Hamilton, now gives any cafe culture strip you care to name around the country a run for its money. I kid you not. Don’t even get me started on the pubs.
But this, of course, has precious little to do with Schubert, or Stanley Park. Firstly, the less familiar. Stanley Park is a truly grand absolute waterfront estate, a nineteenth-century, eight-bedroom mansion, at Fullerton Cove. Twenty-eight acres. French doors. Wide verandahs. Not a neighbour to be seen. Only the odd cow. It’s astounding how far an emancipated convoke could go, back in the day. The easiest way of getting there from Newcastle is via the Stockton ferry and having an obliging soul from the property pick you up. Or you can just hop on a bus. For the better-heeled, Williamtown airport is around a ten-minute limo ride and wine country is probably under an hour in a wound-up Roller.
Believe me, it’s worth the trip. Especially for a Schubertiade like this. Schubertiade? As you might expect, these are rather thin on the ground these days, being homages dedicated exclusively to the music of the short-lived Austrian. The day began at 12.45, with a champagne reception; as you do. The programme proper, about three flutes in, in my case, with Winterreise, first showcased by the great man for his friends in the spring of 1827, when Stanley Park was but a gleam in that ambitious, over-achieving convict’s eye. Schubert referred to this, regarded as the greatest song cycle ever written (though indigenes, Beethoven, Schumann, Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd, for starters, might all have something to say about that), as ‘ghastly’, so he wasn’t exactly over-egging the marketing. And, really, what would he know? Saba, accompanying tenor Dominic Walsh, gave us the truth. By the way, if you’re wondering why Saba’s name isn’t as familiar to you as it might be, it’s because he’s made London his home for about thirty years and tours extensively.
For mine, Saba’s playing is direct and, for the most part, quite full-blooded; refreshing free of the effete flourishes employed by many a classical pianist, that can so often result in unwitting self-parody. It’s a style that’s particularly well-suited to this winter journey, with its twenty-four stopovers. It might’ve been a sunny day outside, but Gute Nacht, the first song, is one of mournful regret, setting the stage for the rest. The song’s lover is a poet, or this poet a lover; on either or both accounts, it seems fitting he should leave by moonlight. Things might have gone better, if one arrives as a stranger and departs in no better social condition. Wilhelm Muller’s poems may or may not be autobiographical, but they’re certainly sad and romantic. However, like Saba, Walsh doesn’t exaggerate the emotional content: he has the maturity to recognise it’s written into both the lyrics and music, so requires no melodramatic accentuation. This allows us to focus wholeheartedly on his robust tenor, which rings out with the utmost clarity. It’s a voice with plenty in reserve, only occasionally (and judiciously) drawn upon. Saba might have quite a few years on Walsh, but they’re like blood brothers, musically. Their approach to the music seems to be respectful, but not deferential: there’s no fawning supplication; rather a quiet confidence in their ability to put Schubert’s intentions across. Schubert, in turn, has honoured Muller’s poetry with moods and melodies not only relative to, but enhancing of, the lyrics. As a narrative, they are somewhat ambiguous and their sum total is more about ambience and this seems to be Schubert’s focus, so that Good Night has the quality of a lullaby, albeit one that forebodes fitful, restless sleep. From ‘a perfect day in May’, we cycle through the tale of our hapless anti-hero to what could hardly be called a happy ending. The Organ-Grinder shuffles on the frozen ground.
With stiff fingers
He coaxes out the sound
His saucer is empty
Gifts for him are rare
No one listens to him
Or looks at him, or cares
Dogs snarl at him
Dogs chase him
But he wears a smile
He shows no fear or disappointment
But turns the handle round and round
Shall I join you on your journey?
Will you play the music to my songs?
Muller, tragically, never to to hear the full set of Schubert’s songs, as he died (at 32, practically the same age as Schubert when he passed away) mere weeks prior, making the last final plea of the last poem all the more poignant. There was resonance, too, in the intimate, drawing room circumstance of this concert: it was if we were, collectively, summoning the spirit of Schubert for a reprise of the original recital of these songs. Speaking of spirit, it seems to me both Saba and Walsh have perspicaciously intuited the precise tenor of Muller and Schubert’s work: it comes off as disconsolate, but never cloyingly self-pitying. The fact (and I sincerely hope he doesn’t mind me making mention of it) Walsh genuinely teared-up at one point gives you an idea of how affecting these songs, at best practice, can be.
Saba returned to the piano to present, first of all, the Impromptu in C minor, distinguished, first off, by its arresting opening chord; a bold, dominant G, in case you’re interested. It’s one of eight Impromptus, composed in the same year as Winterreise. Published in two sets of four (one during Schubert’s lifetime, the other posthumously), the C minor was the very first of the former. Perhaps only Schubert could strike such a militaristic pose and still communicate so sensitively. The piece is, on the one hand, quite strident, with its march-like rhythm, but this is sharply counterpointed with a pacific melodic figure. It’s like war and peace, in under nine minutes, with the central motif stated pianissimo, to begin, but culminating, via variation, in an emphatic fortissimo. It’s elegance and power lies in its economy. Again, Saba didn’t succumb to any temptation to exaggerate the intrinsic drama (with the attendant risk of parody). His primary concerns seem to be fidelity to what he surmised as the composer’s intentions and simple tunefulness; there’s a refreshing humility to his playing, which stands in stark contrast to some of the more eccentric pianists you may recall. Perhaps, when you’ve got it, you don’t have to flaunt it, after all. Schubert is an exceptionally lyrical composer and Saba an exceptionally lyrical player.
From C minor to major, with the unfinished piano sonata in that key (D840). You might know it as Reliquie, so misnamed as, at the time, it was believed it would be Schubert’s swansong. Rumours of his death, which came just three years later, seem to have been greatly exaggerated. What’s captivating here is that, as if to deliberately bait conservatives, to put a rocket up the purists, Saba has collaborated (with Krenek, Badura-Skoda & Newbould) to join the dots, fill in the blanks, cross the ts and dot the is. There’s really only one test for the success of such a mission, should you choose to accept it. The ear. Can the ear, transporting music to the mind and, dare I say, heart, be deceived and seduced into forgetting the work was unfinished? Can one, even in the perverse act of concentrating on finding the deliberate mistake, be confounded? All I can tell you is, I was deceived, seduced and confounded. The story of my life, perhaps. But also testimony, if inexpert, to the immersion Saba and his colleagues have achieved. Had they not confessed their intervention, it might’ve proved the equivalent of The Hitler Diaries or William Boyd’s fictive, reclusive artist, Nat Boyd (who also died at thirty-two). Or, closer to home, Ern Malley, or Helen Demidenko. Saba’s rendition rivals a number of my personal preferences, including Alan Marks’, though Saba’s is, arguably, much less given to inflammation; again, my reckoning is he stands (or sits) as one of the most attuned and sensitive Schubertians and this recital keen evidence for the defence of such a proposition.
It’s difficult to imagine what might follow a Schubert sonata, but Three Piano Pieces (D946) is what did. If you favour Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms (who collated the triptych), or even Nyman, you’ll likely find the first of these irresistible. It rolls and rollicks along: not so much merrily, though it flows neither definitively up, or downstream, emotionally-speaking. There’s sturm und drang, to be sure, but balanced by yet another of Schubert’s transporting, utterly disarming melodic devices. Schubert wields a set of keys that can unlock the hardest heart and Geoffrey Saba seems to have inherited a replica set. Time and space precludes me from entering into it, but debate still rages over Schubert’s intentions, since he deleted a section Brahms saw fit to restore. There are adherents on both sides of the argument. As best I recall, Saba saw fit to run with Brahms’ restoration. And unless he deliberately set out to sabotage the work of his late colleague, Brahms, of all people surely must’ve known what he was doing. It’s been argued the so-called ‘C section’ is compositionally slight, but by whose standard? It seems more than pleasing to me: it’s downright edifying. Or Saba makes it so. The first of these Drei Klavierstucke is in E minor so, again, the move to the major of the same key comes as welcome relief, as it makes for a brighter outlook. As well, it’s a showcase of technique and facility for a virtuosic pianist like Saba.The third piece is a lively allegro made all the more interesting by extensive syncopation. It has a lightness and frivolity the isn’t present in its predecessors. Saba skims over the keys, as if to set the free from the prison of strings to which they’re attached. Up they fly, like so many bright butterflies, before settling on the nearest bloom. It eases into an exquisite caprice of profound simplicity and sophistication. It’s Schubert all over. Saba endowed it with a just-so dynamic range, one entirely appropriate to the setting. After all, this wasn’t a concert hall, but a home, with invited guests.
Imogen Cooper is a pianist with a pronounced sympathy for the elegiac, which she deploys superbly in her recording of Schubert’s superb Piano Sonata in A minor (D784). Saba’s performance, in respect of his thoughtfulness and finesse, put me in mind of this. Again, however, Saba is perhaps more understated in his interpretation of the more tortured elements of the composition, which reflect Schubert’s state of body and mind. Still in his mid-twenties, he was suffering from syphilis, which so wracked him, at times, he pined for the sweet relief death might bring. Less than a decade later, sweet or not, death is what came. To my mind, it’s a mistaken reading that hammers the keys, as if to rail against the grim reaper, since the work is more about succumbing to destiny, however cruel. As with his terrible condition, there are moments of blessed relief, but for the most part, it is unrelievedly desolate, albeit in the most tragically beautiful possible way. On the one hand (but with both), Saba rattled off demanding tremolandos with deceptive effortlessness. On the other, as in the second, gentler movement, he regaled with equanimity.
This event might easily be dismissed as a gathering place and rallying point for an elitist camarilla, but nothing could be further from the truth. The ebullient Ken Healey was on hand to introduce the artists and works with his usual earthy enthusiasm and though the small, diverse coterie might’ve paid a pretty penny, they seemed to be there for all the right reasons. Those being, to lose themselves, for the best part of a day, in the sublimity of some of the most exalted chamber music ever composed, played and sung by two of the most sentient musicians alive.

2 responses to “Schubert at Stanley Park review (Newcastle)

  1. Thank you for such an informative revue. I am considering offering Geoffrey a performance of this in my home Nov. 2015. He has played here to a packed salon and I am sure it would be well attended. I appreciate your comments.
    All the best. Jan

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