A London Schubertiade: The Forge, 24th March 2015

On 24 March the Canadian bass-baritone Andrew Mahon will be performing with the South African/Israeli pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz at The Forge, Camden NW1 7NL       https://uk.patronbase.com/_Forge/Productions/IU/Performances

You have chosen to perform exclusively works by Franz Schubert. Why is this?

Ammiel: We find that much of the music of Schubert, apart from being superb in its own right, is particularly well suited to being performed in an intimate venue, such as The Forge. Back in Schubert’s time, he himself would entertain friends and guests at informal gatherings in Viennese salons and drawing rooms. Here he and other musicians would try out his new chamber works and Lieder, many of which would never be published during his brief lifetime. These gatherings developed a loyal following and received the name of “Schubertiade”. The spirit of the “Keys & Cocktails” series at The Forge is particularly appropriate to this approach to music making – sharing beautiful music whilst there is interaction between the performers and the audience.

Andrew, could you tell us how your interest in Lieder began?

Andrew: I was introduced to Lieder in my early twenties, whilst a student at the University of Toronto, when I heard two recitals given by the same singer, a very famous baritone.  I didn't understand the art form initially, having never been exposed to Lieder before, and my ignorance ensured that the first of these was wasted on me.  The second, a year later, was a performance of Schubert's Winterreise, and I was captivated by it.  The singer, whom I won't name, was in the midst of a demanding opera run at the time and was clearly suffering from vocal fatigue, struggling through the twenty-four songs with more than a few vocal difficulties and memory slips.  But the astonishing thing was that his performance was unaffected by these problems which would make a less experienced singer choke under the pressure.  His exceptional musicianship, professionalism and commitment to the performance made it, to this day, one of the best recitals I have ever seen.  He may have wanted to forget it ever happened but it made me want to become a Lieder singer.  

Ammiel, you are performing the first half of the program solo. Why have you chosen the specific works you will be playing?

Ammiel: I have a particular interest in an artist’s late style, especially after reading such seminal writers such as Theodor Adorno and Edward Said. Painters such as Goya and Rothko developed a distinctive late style, a type of distillation of the essence of their artistic philosophies. Likewise, composers such as Beethoven and Fauré wrote late works which are hardly comparable aesthetically with their early compositions. Schubert, who only lived to the age of 31, does not demonstrate a distinctive stylistic departure in his late works, yet his last two years on earth – even the last few months and weeks – are filled with masterpiece after masterpiece. Who knows what would have flowed from his pen had he lived another year? Or did the very threat of impending death inspire his outpouring? The works I will be playing, the Drei Klavierstücke, D.946 and the Zwölf Gräzer Walzer are both from the final years of Schubert’s life. These pieces demonstrate something which I find to be the quintessence of what is Schubert: the inseparable mixture of love and pain.

And finally, could you tell us a bit about the songs you will be singing, Andrew?

Andrew: We've chosen a selection of songs which I think broadly reflects the German romantic spirit, so often characterised in Lieder by a languishing obsession with unrequited love and a desire for release from life, continuously mediated by vivid descriptions of nature.  In the first four and the final four we've attempted to balance the mood with darker and lighter themes, ranging from mythological imagery of hell and bittersweet confrontations with death to flippant allegories of failed romance and excited journeys of love.  The centerpiece is Schubert's three-song cycle, Gesänge des Harfners, which is a terribly depressing miniature masterpiece.  Taken from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister, these are the sad, mournful songs of the strange, unstable, incestuous and guilt-ridden harp player, whose music is overheard by the eponymous character.  Schubert, always abstracted and immersed in his art, yet never certain of worldly success, identified with the subject of this cycle in a letter to a friend in 1827, “Will I spend my old age like Goethe's harpist, dragging myself from door to door, begging for my bread?”  Unfortunately for the young composer, yet true to the spirit of German romanticism, Schubert wouldn't live long enough to answer the question, dying the following year.

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