Fung’s Virtuosity Pushes the Bechtler’s Schubertiade Envelope

Review: “Schubertiade…and Then Some!”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The whole idea of a Schubertiades, impromptu revels organized by musician friends during Franz Schubert’s lifetime to keep abreast of the composer’s astonishing output, would seem to be inimical to the traditional concert format or a museum setting. Yet it has been the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art that has brought the idea to Charlotte. Early in 2013, a First Tuesday program imported a chamber ensemble from the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to serve up Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” with a side dish of the Notturno piano trio in E flat. So the original Schubertiade up in the Bechtler’s fourth floor gallery didn’t stray from its namesake’s work.

The sequel, with a main dish of the “Arpeggione” Sonata, featuring pianist Bruce Murray and 17-year-old cello phenom Zlatomir Fung, expanded the concept. Yielding to additions from J.S. Bach and Krzysztof Penderecki, the Bechtler made their “Schubertiade… and Then Some” mostly Schubert. Murray and Fung combined on an adaptation of a song, “Ständchen,” from Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang, before the pianist took over the floor for two of the four posthumous Impromptus. Those solo selections helped the ensuing departures make more sense, since there are no solo works by Schubert for a cellist to play.

“Ständchen” or “Serenade” is certainly a dark and lovely ballad, but it offered no great challenges to either musician. The wordless lyricism of the piece likely did more to ingratiate the players with the audience than it did to warm them up. Winner of numerous competitions in the US and Europe, with six appearances logged on NPR’s From the Top, Fung has a luscious tone on his instrument – and, one guesses from his surprisingly mellow speaking voice, an affinity for singing. Sitting in the front row, maybe five feet from the platform that Fung was playing on, I found the sound of his cello more powerful than expected. I’d also recommend the left side of the room, where I found myself near the wall, over my customary spot on the right side near the passageway to the main exhibition hall. The sound of the Steinway also seemed better defined from this fresh vantage point.

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While Benjamin K. Roe, long associated with both the WDAV classical station and NPR, did the initial introduction for the concert, Murray zeroed in on Impromptu No.’s 2 and 4, clearly indicating his preference for the latter and its touch of madness. He played the A flat No. 2 with admirably contrasting dynamics within each of the three sections and linked the middle section to the outer sections in a manner that made them sound very much like a set of variations on the same theme. But the liveliness of Murray’s playing sounded nothing like madness at the start of the F minor No. 4, with jollity echoing Mozart giving way to waves of romanticism presaging Chopin and Liszt. The sudden stops and plunges into more ruminative passages were a different matter, indeed simulating the depths of a depression, when we reached the midsection of the piece before jollity returned.

Fung’s introductions were no less lucid than Murray’s, making a virtue out of the necessity of explaining why Bach and Penderecki belonged at a Schubertiade. Apparently, Bach inspired Schubert to take up the study of counterpoint late in his abbreviated life, a fair connection, but the charm of Fung’s intro to the Penderecki was his frank acknowledgement of how weak and lame his explanation was for any linkage at all. The two pieces fit the profiles of these introductions very nicely, for the Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 6 in D was rich and meditative, more like Yo-Yo Ma’s account of the Bach classic than Rostropovich’s. Aside from one stray squeak, the only complaint I can lodge against the performance was that Fung only played one of the six movements.

If the 1994 Divertimento by Penderecki wasn’t as whimsical as Fung’s intro, it was certainly as unusual and unpredictable. Perhaps the better course of linking the piece to the Schubert repertoire would have been to underscore the title of the first movement, Serenade, as the translation of the opening “Ständchen” he had played with Murray. Certainly, there was something to say about how different a serenade this was. No wooing here. On the contrary, after the preliminary pizzicatos and soft tapping of the wooden side of the bow on the strings – a soft knocking on milady’s door? – the knocking grew more violent after a gentle section of conventional bowing, hinting at a growing desperation. The ensuing Scherzo movement (Fung only played two of the three listed on the program) was less playful than the Serenade was tender, quickening the pace and hurtling into chaos with furious double bowing, leavened only with a sprinkling of harmonics. This was the most startling display of Fung’s virtuosity that we would see but definitely not a piece that I would expect Yo-Yo Ma to record soon.

Completing the “posthumous-ness” of the Schubert selections, Fung and Murray played the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A minor after a brief intro from the pianist that chiefly described the instrument. The six-stringed guitar-like cello with its fretted fingerboard passed out of vogue not long after Schubert wrote his sonata, perhaps because this piece wasn’t published until 47 years after it was written in 1824. My late father introduced me to the work many years ago when he asked me to buy him a recording of it for Hannukah, and I was fortunate enough to hear Mischa Maisky play it live to a standing-room-only audience at the Verbier Festival in 2004.

In this more sedate museum setting, Fung’s adrenalin didn’t seem to be pumping nearly as hard as Maisky’s when he took the fast outer movements, the opening Allegro moderato and the closing Allegretto, at a dangerous clip. At a more prudent pace, I did detect one little scrape as Fung sped along, but there were none of Maisky’s intonation errors marring his celebratory virtuosity. Fung’s heavenly tone was showcased once again in the middle Adagio movement, and there was a nice clearing in the closing movement for Murray to shine in before Fung made his most intensely joyous entrance. Such a rousing ending deserved a mellow encore, and the duo obliged with an eloquent transcription of “An die Musik,” another Schubert favorite. The translation of that title, “Ode to Music,” could accurately be applied to all we heard.

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