Farewell, and farewell again at Ozawa Hall
Tanglewood concluded its "Schubert's Summer Journey" series Wednesday night with a selection of late piano pieces and songs with which Schubert bid farewell to life. As if to make doubly certain that it was an evening of valediction, pianist Emanuel Ax and baritone Simon Keenlyside ended the program with the song "Abschied" ("Farewell"), bidding adieu to the cheerful city, the friendly young maidens, the sun, the stars — all of that. None of Schubert's coy glances or odes to spring announced themselves here.
If that sounds bleak, most of the 11 songs, performed post-intermission, were about loss, usually of love, but there, among others, was Atlas bearing the weight of the world upon his shoulders. The redeeming factor, paradoxically, was the beauty and joy of hearing two superb artists making music of the highest order in repertoire of the highest order.
This, in a way, slights Ax's contribution. He not only curated the six-concert series and took part with distinction in most of programs. He also opened Wednesday's program with Schubert's four piano Impromptus, D.935, imbuing them with a sense of gentleness and acceptance of what-will-be even amid storms and rages.
The English Keenlyside, who has extensive opera experience, was sometimes like a caged animal as, enacting the songs, his prowled the stage, clutched his heart and raised a defiant or loving arm toward the heavens in Schubert's more extravagant emotions.
Keenlyside stitched together 11 songs, related only by theme, to form a cycle about the transitoriness of human joys. Seven songs were from a posthumous "Schwanengesang" collection of 14 stitched together by a publisher to form a more or less artificial cycle, forming a sequel to the genuine cycles "The Lovely Maid of the Mill" and "Winter's Journey." (It was from the latter cycle that Tanglewood found a title for its series.)
Keenlyside's voice could be described as honeyed; it could be described as manly or heroic; it could be described as endlessly versatile. It was all of those things, but in the end the voice and the personality were endlessly equipped to evoke the varying shades of mood and meaning both between songs and within.
"Warrior's Foreboding," for example, ended with a heartbreaking "good night!" to the soldier's far-away beloved amid his contemplation of the coming battle. In "To the Moon on an Autumn Night," an easy walking pace in the piano contradicted the sorrow from the light falling on the graves of loved ones, where the singer himself will soon lie.
In the impromptus — anything but the playthings the title suggests — Ax's alternations between major and minor keys, between hope and loss, were the more powerful for being almost understated. His song accompaniments supported and blended so subtly with the vocal line that they were always present without calling undue attention to themselves, even amid the gallop of the horse in "Abschied."
In keeping with the idea of mixing somehow related newer pieces with Schubert's in most programs, the middle of Samuel Adams' three "Impromptus (after Schubert)" followed Schubert's own set. The son of composer John Adams, Sam Adams took Schubert's rippling figures and answering phrases into a denser world of his own imagining.
The program also marked the end of the Ozawa Hall chamber music season. And so, farewell.
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