Goldhamer’s Schubert: where the music is

Where do you look during a concert?

One can look out the window, as i often do when given the opportunity.  I love the glass at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, or the glorious view at the Conservatory Theatre (seen below)


I ask, mindful of a famous picture that captures at least two of the options. In this painting of a Schubertiad –an intimate gathering surrounding the composer @ the piano—we encounter the pianist who is at least one of the possible places to stare (including the fingers on the keyboard).  Others stare at the ceiling (option #2). I recall thinking when I first saw this picture that it was so embarrassingly intimate.

Where do you look? moritz_von_schwind_schubertiade

And –speaking of funny questions—I wondered as I pondered this question about where to look, where is the music? Do you find it looking at the musician, his/her virtuosic hands, profound expressions, body language…? Or is the music somewhere in the air, perhaps in the expressions of our fellow travellers?  I think that when we’re watching the virtuoso, who is in some sense the embodiment of technique celebrated to the point of a fetish, we focus on the iconic person, the celebrity player / singer.

We may no longer be really hearing /seeing music any longer. The icon / celebrity hijacks the art.

All that’s in the painting, and of course, was there to be seen today at Brahm Goldhamer’s Schubert recital today at the Royal Conservatory Theatre: a tiny venue with a Steinway, a high ceiling, wonderful acoustics and a magnificent view of Bloor St & the neighbouring Michael Lee-Chin’s Crystal.  The seats wrap around the piano on two sides, giving us some interesting choices of view, as to what we’d be staring at:
1. Pianist
2. The view out the window
3. The view up at the ceiling
4. The other listeners, who are looking at 1, 2 or 3
I put this preamble out there because of what I experienced and what I heard. I’ve heard lots of virtuosi, piano players with great skill whose image and identity is associated with fast fingers. I traveled with the TSO earlier this month, seeing Jan Lisiecki play the Beethoven 4th piano concerto 3 times on three consecutive nights. You notice skill not just when someone plays well, but when we’re all tired from a late bus without rehearsal and the fingers still get the job done. Virtuosity has its place. Last night I heard Alexandre Tharaud playing Mozart with the TSO led by Bernard Labadie.

I believe something happens in the presence of complexity & detail. I am influenced by a radio program I heard on CBC today, discussing the advent of electric light and the virtues of clarity. We live in a positivistic world, obsessed with measurement, numbers, knowing & explaining where we are –with our GPS’s and onboard navigation—and deconstructing everything, every precise weather forecast and prediction of the fractions of a percent shift in interest rates. We are illuminated whether we want it or not, unable to find darkness or chiaroscuro (not so much dark as the twilight regions).

Forgive me if I oversimplify. I love ambiguity and complexity, mystery not as something to be solved but as a shroud to imitate reality.  Let Truth keep her clothes on, to make the flirtation last.

Musical development was/is a somewhat scientific process even in Beethoven’s time, an analytical fracturing of themes into fragments, sometimes contrapuntal explorations, sometimes sonata theme and development, that leads us later to musical modernism. Schubert’s approach is the road less taken, epic story-telling rather than novelistic complexity, episodes and tunes rather than architectonic composition. And yet he does write big long pieces out of those stories, episodes, melodies, ballads.

Inevitably we encounter Schubert –and Schumann and Liszt and others who are at least partially making these epic compositions (“epic” in the dramatic sense of what Brecht wanted, story-telling in episodes, not novels or symphonies)—in the hands of virtuosi, pianists seduced by the massive challenges, and processing this music as though it were Beethoven. How could it be otherwise? You call the fireman when there’s no fire, and they will still look for hazards and maybe spray you with their hose, fire or no fire. Don’t blame someone for being who they are. But also, don’t underestimate someone via one set of criteria. I was listening to Amy Winehouse a few days ago, heart-broken that a brilliant jazz-singer and composer went astray, becoming a pop singer; while she was still the best pop singer I ever heard, it was both a waste of her gift, and the likely route to her death (or so I conclude after watching the documentary Amy).

What I am alluding to in that analogy –the straying jazz-singer Amy Winehouse—is that I believe we can’t hear the real Schubert because of the misguided way pianists play his music.  We wouldn’t hand Shakespeare to the stars of daytime soap operas, yet we populate our concert halls with these manual athletes whose sensibilities are caught up in speed and clarity, positivistic pitfalls that lead us all astray.  I heard a different approach to Schubert today at the hands of Brahm Goldhamer. Maybe it’s been done before, but all I know is that I’ve never heard it. It’s not a matter of tempo, as there are people who play his music faster, some slower. I like the way Kuerti and Brendel play, two who are not completely seduced by the virtuoso impulse.

Yet what I heard Goldhamer do is entirely different.

The scale of the music was intimate. We were in the Conservatory Theatre, a space that seats perhaps 60-70, where the pianist could step forward to briefly address us and have comfortable eye contact with all of us, and with no need to raise his voice. In other words it’s more of a salon than a theatre. The forte in this space was still gentle, musical. The pianissimos were like whispers. If you play this way in a bigger space it won’t work, as one must elevate one’s game the way an actor uses their trained voice to be heard in a bigger space, to express nuance and emotion. As I say, Brahm scaled his playing to the space, something gentle & personal.

There was something Brahm did with his page-turns that signaled what we were seeing. As a life-long accompanist (and excuse me that I use the old politically incorrect term; I know everyone else is –supposedly—a collaborative pianist), I know the terror of the page-turn, the tension build as one approaches the bottom of the page. Sometimes one must omit some music or paraphrase in order to keep it going. This is not what Brahm did. We came to the ends of pages, and he paused like a story – teller when necessary. The music would wait when necessary. This imposed a sense of boundaries, of formal space around his effort and our necessity to accept what he was doing, rather than the imitation of the virtuoso effect of a perfect seamless reading.  It was a bit like what Brecht calls attention to, when speaking of the alienation effect.  These moments pulled us out of our dream, to be reminded of the player serenading us.  We were in that subjective place of the poetry reading.

I was most impressed with how Brahm approached the big B-flat sonata, as though it were a series of song-like episodes, even though at times its technical challenges are big. But this was not a show-off exercise, not a matter of interpretation. He was in a genuine sense invisible, once I decided to stare at the ceiling and let his music-making flood over me, carrying me away. His hands were at ease, his pianissimo touches as delicate as a caress administered to each of us in this warm intimate venue.

Apparently it’s been forty—five years since the last solo recital. But Brahm assured us that after this wonderful experience –a genuine example of communication—he would do it again next year.

I’ll be there.


After the concert… that’s Brahm’s bouquet that i photographed while he went around the room thanking everyone individually for coming: which isn’t usual.

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