Proms Chamber Music No.8: 10th September 2001

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), D965
Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, D.898

Emma Bell (soprano)
Ronald van Spaendonck (clarinet)
Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 10 September, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A lunchtime concert given by representatives of Radio 3’s “New Generation Artists”. Predictably a concert characterised by enthusiasm and freshness, if not the last degree of finish.

Late Schubert is more poignant than late Mozart. Mozart seldom betrays a sense of the untimely end to his life; his maturity appears timeless. Schubert, instead, is still exploring, on the brink of something; in each of his late works, however lyrical or satisfying, we feel regret for what did not have time to be developed. This is true of the very last work, The Shepherd on the Rock, more cantata than song, written for lyric soprano, but with a range and set of demands that occasionally benefit from a bigger voice.

Emma Bell is clearly a most promising soprano. She can already sing with delicacy and lightness; her piano and pianissimo tone is sweet and engaging. In her performance there were many memorable and touching moments – the yearning of the shepherd expressed in “und singe, und siuge,” the catch of hope in the voice at the start of the final section, “Der Fruhling willkommen”. At all times she conveyed a delight in the melodic line and communicated well the emotional immediacy of the words. However, she is not yet comfortable with the piece’s demands – the low note at “kluefte” has trapped many lyric sopranos, and her tone projection in forte passages and in crescendos is not yet completely controlled. Time, one imagines, will also bring greater emotional depth to passages, “In tiefem Gram,” for example, where the shepherd protagonist is lamenting the beloved’s absence.

Ronald van Spaendonck gave a really splendid account of the clarinet part, sweet-toned, romantically committed, and impassioned. His consistency was the highlight of the performance. Steven Osborne was a more retiring accompanist, always sensitive, and with moments of insight – such as with the scales in the final section – but essentially self-effacing.

Osborne’s reluctance to take a starring role extended to the Trio. The initial impetus of the first movement undoubtedly came from Elisabeth Batiashvili. Osborne again saw his role as bringing order and rhythmic stability to his more wayward companions. Batiashvili’s sweetness of tone and strength of attack were impressive throughout, though neither was at the cost of disturbing the chamber texture.

The first movement had many impressive moments – the ’bird-call’-like piano decorations over the strings in the development, an increase in emotional intensity to reach the recapitulation; there was constant attention to detail, but as an interpretation, it lacked the last degree of vision. At times, Osborne did take a more heroic role (as at the end of the exposition), but one felt his concern to preserve the (excellent) balance restricted his own self-expression.

The admirable slow movement contains many opportunities for duetting, for sustaining emotion through long paragraphs, and the three players were faithful to both the score’s letter and spirit. It was a near-perfect negotiation, but a negotiation none the less. This trio of instrumentalists had neither the complete intuitive understanding of a long-established trio, nor the ultimate star-quality that may well come to them as soloists. Again one felt a lack of an organic whole or the affinity of interpretation when a chamber group is a single instrument with many limbs. Sometimes, the moments of greatest emotion seemed tacked on, in their place and far from arbitrarily, but without a sense of inevitability or flow.

The scherzo passed with the exuberance of young players who love the music but, for this reason, seemed too much of a stampede and not enough of a dance, more relentless than relaxed for so sunny a work, reminding more of the harshness of the G major string quartet. The finale was precise and lively, witness the triplet ornamenting of the second subject, yet never quite took flight, never quite showed enough variety or character.

These criticisms are judged by the highest standards, by the interpretations of those who have performed this music for many years. The chosen Prom exhibit, a Victorian female costume, was a reminder of the essentially domestic nature of Schubert’s music during his lifetime. As for the performances, whatever its imperfections, it conformed to Schumann’s verdict on the B flat Trio – “a work which makes the world seem fresh and new again”.

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