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Sandrine Piau [Photo by Antoine Le Grand courtesy of IMG Artists]
06 Mar 2011

Schubert Transcribed, Wigmore Hall

Schubert, but not quite as we know him. You can always rely on the Wigmore Hall to promote adventurous recitals.

Schubert Transcribed

Sandrine Piau, soprano; Antoine Tamestit, viola; Markus Hadulla, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 28 February 2011.

Above: Sandrine Piau [Photo by Antoine Le Grand courtesy of IMG Artists]


This concert with Sandrine Piau, Antoine Tamestit and Markus Hadulla was very unusual indeed, shaking up assumptions about voice and instrument, styles and genres.

Sandrine Piau is an outstanding baroque specialist, renowned for her purity of her tone. A background in baroque develops clarity and precision, so her ventures into other repertoire build on these strengths. Her recordings of Debussy songs, for example, emphasize the transparent textures. It’s a very French aesthetic, lucidly beautiful. When Piau sings Schubert, her approach works well too. In An den Mond D 193 the lustrous sheen of her timbre evoked the moonlight, slowly traversing the landscape. The final strophe, “Dann, lieber Mond, dann nimm den Schleier wieder” was most effective, for her voice calls out, as if penetrating the darkness. Piau’s cool, abstract style sounds like a wind instrument, reinforcing the spirit of this unusual idiom-bending recital.

Nacht und Träume D.827 and Der Taubenpost D 965a are so famous as songs for voice and piano that it’s quite a surprise to hear them transcribed for viola, especially since the piano part remains much the same. It’s certainly not a question of what’s “better”, but more like hearing a completely alien “voice” with a unique personality. This was specially telling in the latter song where Tamestit’s viola catches the cheeky wit in the song, often missed when it’s performed as part of Schwanengesang. The viola does “sing”.

Then, Schubert as opera composer ! Romanze der Helene D 787 is an extract from Schubert’s Singspiele Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators). A recent performance in England was reviewed by Opera Today Schubert’s libretto is adapted from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. This is the opening aria, expressing the heroine’s longing for her husband who is away at war. Piau sings it with such feeling that you’re won over, though the war in question was the Crusades which are normally romanticized in Christian Europe.

Die Verschworenen isn’t familiar except to Schubert devotees, but Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) D.965 is one of his best loved songs. It’s quite a shock to hear that evocative, curving introduction with viola instead of clarinet. Bowing instead of blowing ! But once you adjust, it’s fascinating. Then Piau starts to sing the swooping, elliptical lines that represent the way shepherds project their voices over mountains and valleys. In your imagination, you “hear” the way a bow glides back and forth across strings. Schubert, but not quite as we know him. You can always rely on the Wigmore Hall to promote adventurous recitals. This concert with Sandrine Piau, Antoine Tamestit and Markus Hadulla was very unusual indeed, shaking up assumptions about voice and instrument, styles and genres. Vocal glissandi. Uncanny, the way our senses can cross reference each other.

Keynote of this recital was Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata D.821. It’s seldom performed live as the arpeggione is an antique instrument few can play. It’s fretted like a guitar but bowed like a cello. The instrument was invented by a guitar maker in 1823, so when Schubert wrote the sonata in 1824, he was pioneering completely new territory. In his own time, Schubert was avant garde.

Nonetheless, Schubert’s affinity for the guitar was rooted fairly deep in his life. I’m not sure if he played the instrument, but it was popular in 19th century Austria and played in social situations. Hugo Wolf’s mother was a keen amateur guitar player, influencing Wolf’s music to a greater degree than is often realized. I don’t know if Schubert played the guitar, but he would have been familiar with it and the situations in which it was played. There have been notable transcriptions of Schubert works adapted for guitar, such as like Die schöne Müllerin D. 795, which work extremely well. No wonder he was attracted to the arpeggione.

The trouble is, the new instrument didn’t catch on and there’s almost nothing written for it in the repertoire. The Arpeggione Sonata is rarely heard except in transcription for cello. Antoine Tamestit’s transcription for viola is fascinating because the viola is smaller and lighter. Four strings instead of the apreggione’s six, but less body than a cello. I’m not sure what viola Tamestit was using, but he produces a lithe, flexible sound. Like guitars and presumably arpeggiones, violas are portable, so Tamestit’s freedom brightens the piece and makes it move, perhaps as Schubert might have imagined it.

This very unusual programme was compiled by Antoine Tamestit, a violist whose original transcriptions of various Schubert staples are now available on CD from the French label Naive. Sandrine Piau appears on the recording as well, so that singular Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) D.965D is preserved for all to enjoy.

Anne Ozorio

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