Since 1982 Schubert, Schubert and Schubert, a music festival sounding like an Austrian law firm, has paid annual homage to the composer thrice named. This past weekend, Georgetown University's Gaston Hall was the site of several evenings' worth of Schubert chamber music, ranging from the sublime to the sublime. If one were not already a champion of his artistry, then these three nights should have cultivated fresh converts to the Schubert cause.
The music performed and the practitioners involved guaranteed success. Foremost was the play of the Franz Schubert Quartett, making its Washington debut and creating a bit of a smash in the process. The impact of their readings did not strike one immediately: It was more like a slow dazzle, to be savored and fully appreciated after they traversed several works. Yet there was no mistaking the cohesiveness and confidence in their handling of Schubert.
On Friday night, the Quartett got the Schubert theme off to a rousing start with the String Quartet in D Major, D. 94. The work has a youthful capriciousness and simplicity, for Schubert likely wrote it for performance by himself on viola, his brothers on violin and his less-than-nimble-fingered father on cello. This reading mined all the charm with painstaking grace, leaving profundity aside for the two ensuing works, the String Quartet in C Minor, "Quartettsatz" D. 703, and Schubert's crowning achievement, the Quintet in C Major, D. 956.
In a single movement lasting just under 10 minutes, the "Quartettsatz" shares the same emotional charge of its similarly fragmented brother, the Symphony No. 8 ("Unfinished"). Tremulous strings, distinctive part writing and unorthodox construction create a storm indeed, one the Franz Schubert Quartett brought on with a minimum of thunder and lightning.
Restraint also reigned in the group's rendition of the quintet, which featured David Soyer of the Guarneri Quartet on violincello. Soyer's brawny tone brought vitality and character, yet stayed within the disposition bounds set by the others. The fivesome suavely articulated the peaks and valleys with care, without lingering over phrases. One has heard more probing accounts of this work; still the even-temperament approach chosen here worked well.
Saturday evening might well have been titled "Theme and Variation" for the program's diversity. Soprano Anne Tedards opened with five lieder, among which was the famous "An die Musik." Her light, willowy voice lent an immediacy to each song. Two songs based on lyrics by the eternal romantic Goethe found Tedards testing the fragile upper register of her voice and emerging victorious.
Her accompanist, Stewart Gordon, joined flutist Wendell Dobbs for the Introduction and Variations on "Trock'ne Blumen" from "Die scho ne Mu llerin." This piece, far from a critical darling, has not been given much exposure in its chamber setting. Dobbs and Gordon carried off the virtuosic passages with flair, making this duet version more than just a lightweight anomaly.
The Franz Schubert Quartett returned for the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, again bringing a delicacy and polish to the most heated moments. They addressed the second movement (the work's core) with an almost reverential awe, as if the text were indeed sacred. The ensemble sound here was perfectly balanced; the inner strength and security in their playing was communicated directly to the audience.
The one non-Schubert "variation" was the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem's String Quartet No. 4, which had its American premiere. This freely tonal piece economically uses melodies with a rhythmic sophistication that only vaguely resembles Schubert. The quartet's performance was satisfactory, and the work does have merit. Still, one must ask, why this piece? Especially when there are plenty more Schubert chamber works -- such as the quartets in A minor and G major -- more deserving and, better yet, more in keeping with the festival.
If Saturday's bill raised eyebrows for the Schubert purist, then Sunday's finale must have caused some serious head scratching. An assortment of choral pieces and "The Trout" Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667, were interspersed with the world premieres of "Four A Cappella Choruses" and a collection of piano miniatures by American composer Gordon Getty. An odd coupling without a doubt, for one would have to stretch things considerably to pinpoint any real likenesses between the two.
Paul Traver, conducting the Men of the University of Maryland Chorus, exposed Schubert's naturalistic side in "The Little Village," "The Nightingale" and "The Spirit of Love," before favoring the Gaston Hall onlookers with a pair of Schubert stein-raising drinking songs. A departure from the heavy fare one normally expects in his lied, these teen-age creations bubbled along merrily.
Gordon Getty had a front-row seat, the better to see and hear Traver and chorus present his settings of verses by A.E. Housman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Along the Field as We Came By" used mild, well-placed dissonances amid the sonorous harmonies to sustain the musical line. "All Along the Valley" best displayed Getty's exemplary gifts as a melodist.
Pianist Gordon reiterated Getty's accessibility in the "Three Diatonic Waltzes" and the "Homework Suite," the latter a deceptively simple work in five parts. Just as one got a bead on the music's direction, the section ended, only to be followed by another with an equally compelling melody. Getty, intentionally or not, seems to have captured musically a child's rich imagination and rather short attention span. He acknowledged his hearty reception with a round of applause for all performers involved.
Schubert, Schubert and Schubert concluded with a stirring account of "The Trout" Quintet, featuring members of the Franz Schubert String Quartett, Stewart Gordon and double bassist Robert Dodelin. Florian Zwiauer's luxuriant violin tone was a perfect match for Gordon's light piano attack. Their effervescence was contagious; this year's "Schubertiade" couldn't have asked for a more uplifting finale.