A delightful unexpected surprise this week. I quite serendipitously discovered, just the preceding day, that Elisabeth Brauss was giving a short concert on Thursday for the Cambridge University German Society. And some last minute tickets were available to non-members. So off we went. (An unusual experience too, to find ourselves the only ancients at a recital!)
Elisabeth was just wonderful, playing with such verve and colour and subtlety and evident enjoyment. And we in our turn hugely enjoyed her first piece, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. She is playing this soon at Wigmore Hall, together with a Schubert sonata and Schumann’s Carnaval. For Thursday, she chose the Schumann — which is obviously great fun to play, and pleased her enthusiastic audience. But it is far from my favourite piece, and I would so love to have heard her Schubert.
So here she is playing his Piano Trio No. 1 four years ago, with her now frequent duo partner Noa Wildschut, and the cellist Alexander Warenberg, all ridiculously young. Just astonishing. And also in these dark times, a moment of beauty and hope.
Well, we were supposed to have been in Copenhagen, visiting the Digital Nomad Daughter. But the day before we were intending to travel, she sent a message to say that they had just succumbed to Covid. We didn’t go. Perhaps we dodged a viral bullet anyway, since apparently Covid is rife there and we have yet to have the next round of vaccine booster shots. Not the week, then, that we were looking forward to. So we’ve been here in an increasingly autumnal Cambridge, misty first thing … and staying hazy this morning as we walked for the hundredth time up to the folly at Wimpole.
With unexpected time on my hands, I’ve been pressing on with Category Theory II and have already quietly uploaded two more heavily revised chapters, and added a third just yesterday. These chapters are I think much improved, with material re-arranged and expanded, and some proofs made rather more transparent. Not epoch-making stuff, true. But I confess I’ve rather enjoyed the process of trying to explain things better to myself, and hope that some others might eventually find the results useful.
Let me share a belated discovery. I should have known before about the pianist Cordelia Williams who won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2006 and has since released four CDs to considerable acclaim, and fifth just a couple of days ago. (There is a Cambridge connection too: she gained a First in Theology at Clare College about the time for her early competition success.)
Her new disc is “Cascade”, a recording of miniatures, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, Schumann’s Waldszenen. and Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives. She writes “When I play the middle section of Beethoven’s Fourth Bagatelle from Op 126, I instantly leave the everyday world for another existence: floating, hazy, waiting. Just as abruptly, this shining life disappears like a burst bubble, leaving only a sense that something magical has flickered by. I’m struck over and over by the contrast between the idea of a ‘Bagatelle’ — a small trifle, something of little import — and the musical reality of these pieces. Yes, they are short, but there is such concentration of creativity, focusing each vignette to bright intensity. The depth of transformation and modulation conveys us great distances in each ‘trifle’ — musical content and emotional weight in inverse relation to length. These pieces were written well after Beethoven’s final piano sonata and I sense a whole lifetime of invention condensed into these small forms. Each of these six miniatures casts a brief spell, seeming to end after a minute or two but nevertheless leaving us subtly changed by the experiencing of it. I’ve enjoyed playing these Bagatelles for 15 years now but over the last three I’ve become captivated by this momentary magic in music, by the quality of fleeting beauty. My perception of life seems to become less linear, more a tumbling collection of moments of passing vividness. The ephemerality does not diminish the meaning contained within each of those moments – maybe it even increases their splendour.” The other pieces too she offers as cascades of momentary magic.
The playing here immediately strikes me as very fine, the familiar Schumann immediately captivating, the Prokofiev (which I didn’t know) evanescent fleeting glimpses, the Beethoven impressively convincing. I will want to listen and re-listen. But for Schubert on Sunday, I’ll be returning to her first CD of 2013 of the Schubert Impromptus. The Guardian reviewer wrote at the time “Don’t be lulled by Cordelia Williams’s sweetly cool reading of the first two of Schubert’s Impromptus D899 in this recording; there’s romantic fire lurking under the surface. No 3 is almost Brahmsian in its achingly beautiful sweep, and there’s a delicious, dark brooding beneath the delicacy of No 1, D935. Crucially, [she] manages to suffuse each of these eight miniatures with just the right degree of regret …”. These aren’t performances to replace Brendel, Lupu, Pires, Uchida. But they are a delight to listen to.
But if Cordelia Williams’s recording of the Impromptus made a fine debut disc, her return to Schubert a couple of years ago in her fourth CD “Nightlight” is something else again. The centrepiece of this disc is Schubert’s C minor Sonata D958. The Gramophone reviewer wrote, more eloquently than I could, “For all the architectural grandeur of the opening Allegro, [Williams] brings subtlety and contrast to its urgent rhetoric. When the purity of the voices in the Adagio’s chorale devolves into the menacing triplets, it is a plausible psychological progression from calm self assurance to abject terror. Its sinister undertow notwithstanding, the Minuet maintains poise and grace. The finale’s flight from the furies, despite its driven desperation, remains an escape inerrantly proportionate and flawlessly planned. Throughout the sonata, her playing is always natural, unforced and supremely lyrical, yet alive to every tragic implication in Schubert’s drama. … For all this album’s many strengths, the Schubert sonata alone is worth the price. Williams unapologetically takes her place among the most eloquent exponents of this great work in recent years.” Yes! And from another review: “Her performance of the strange un-minuet-like minuet is a marvel. Even the great names amongst Schubertians seem a little perplexed by this fugitive music. Perhaps it is Williams’ night time theme that helps her unlock the way the uneven phrases interlock so convincingly as though an insomniac Schubert were facing his demons in the wee small hours. Whatever the prompt, Williams catches the mood peculiarly well both here and in the finale. In not straining to find high tragedy, she brings the music closer in character to the other two of Schubert’s last piano sonatas. There is the bitter-sweet tang. There are the fleeting moments of sensual delight and of joy mixed with deep sadness and nostalgic regret. It all passes under her attentive fingers. The first two movements are just as good; this is one of the great performances of this sonata.”
You can stream the CDs from Apple Music etc. And here is a film of Cordelia Williams performing the first movement of the D958 Sonata (and I believe she is planning to be performing D959 and D960 over the next couple of years — so catch her concerts if you can).
For a long time, back before CDs, Schubert’s piano music for me meant Alfred Brendel. Early on, I had very extravagantly bought his box of Schubert LPs, which I played and played for years. Still the performances which I find myself comparing with all others, and returning to often. So this week let’s have Brendel in his prime, playing the first set of impromptus.
The much-admired Esmé Quartet won first prize at the 2018 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, and have since rightly had a stellar career. Here they are, a year ago, playing Schubert D810, the Death and the Maiden quartet.
There is an astounding, prize-winning, recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet of great depth, charged and driven from the first note to the last, but of great subtlety of colour and phrasing. The Esmé Quartet’s performance, I think, bears comparison. Outstanding.
The young American pianist Eric Lu won the Leeds Piano Competition in 2018 at the age of 20. He has since released two discs, the second of music by Schubert, including the extraordinary penultimate sonata in A major, D959.
Some have found Lu’s performance over-romantic. But I like it greatly and find his interpretation very affecting indeed. Here he is playing the sonata in Warsaw in 2021.
I don’t know how many readers of this blog follow up the musical posts, but I do get occasional appreciative messages. Anyway, I am in the mood to start another series of weekly links to performances on video. This time, of pieces all by one composer, for as long as the spirit moves me. (Is it just by chance that, in the past, talking to other philosophical or logical music lovers, it seemed to be Schubert who was so often mentioned as particularly close to their hearts too?)
Where to start? As we’ll find, there are some stunning video recordings available. I’ll try to leaven the heart-wrenching with the more consoling, though in the end I suspect there might be more of the former (did I say it would all be Schubert?). But you can’t get more full of joy than this, to start with.