Julian Rachling, a young violin Wunderkind, unveils two nights of music, bringing the legendary composer Franz Schubert's work to the public

Vioninist Julian Rachlin | Photo: Manfred Baumann

Franz Schubert was the quintessential Viennese composer, the only great master really native to this city. He was born in the 9th District and died in the 4th (perhaps that’s all one needs to know: it was all I needed once to pass a music history test). He managed to condense the artistic production of a lifetime into a tragically short career, dying in his 31st year, a year that nevertheless witnessed an explosion of creativity and miraculous outpourings.

To envisage life in Vienna in the first three decades of the 19th century when it was Schubert’s home, one must imagine a crowded, fast-growing city that was smog-ridden and lacked sanitation – a haven for beggars and a place of disease. Urban life was irresistible however, a symbol of progress and modernity. Vienna was also elegant and fashionable, a beautiful city with splendid buildings and a grand past.

This dichotomy perhaps describes some of the motivation in Schubert’s music, with much of it composed for an intimate setting, among friends and family. Songs, dances, short piano pieces – musical miniatures to entertain and delight in the safe surroundings of small rooms. Indeed the Austrian political climate in this Biedermeier period, under the heavy hand of the Austrian statesman Metternich, was one of control and oppression. As the contemporary and friend of Schubert, Eduard von Bauernfeld, wrote at the end of the century: “Today’s youth cannot imagine the humiliating pressure… our creative spirits… suffered. The police in general and censorship in particular weighed on us all like a monkey we could not get off our back.”

It is also hard to imagine that most if not almost all of Schubert’s most famous compositions were not even published in his lifetime. Paradoxically, any regular concert go-er or CD collector can now hear the gems of late pieces that were unknown during those years; even Schubert himself heard some of his greatest works only in his inner ear. However, despite reflecting the time and place it was written, this music continues to hold us resolutely in its emotional grip. This is a testimony to its timelessness.

I admit to being hopelessly passionate about Schubert. Lyricism permeates everything he wrote. His compositional language is defined by the singing human voice. The incorporation of his song melodies into so many of his instrumental works testifies to this basic unison of inspiration and impulse. And it is just this that makes his instrumental music so great.

Schubert’s music has remarkable subtlety; it portrays the slightest shifts of inner emotions. His melodies frequently use a limited range, often only the interval of a fifth or sixth reflecting the comfortable range of a singer. A movement out of this confinement entails the expressive surprise, the moment of emotional intensity. His modulations from major to minor modes are rapid, mimicking the rocking of inner thoughts and dialogues. And when the music exclaims, be it in volume or drama, it does so quickly with little warning, and then retreats nearly as fast, as if to say, “Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to be so frank.”

The last day of April and the first two of May offered a particularly dense chance to hear Schubert in Vienna: Four concerts in three days. There were two evenings of Schubert violin pieces at the Theater an der Wien, with Julian Rachlin and Itamar Golan on piano. And the same weekend, another package deal at the Konzerthaus: on Saturday Florian Boesch singing the Winterreise, and the day before, Steve Davislim singing the Schöne Müllerin – what should have been a notable opportunity to hear both of Schubert’s most famous song cycles back to back.

Luckily though, Davislim cancelled, and he will sing the Schöne Müllerin on June 22. So we still have something to look forward to.

The two great song cycles are only the pinnacle of an oeuvre of roughly 600 songs written by Schubert. Both are based on poetry by the German poet Wilhelm Müller and both are wrenching tales of heartbreak and death. Boesch rendered the Winterreise as a true drama, from a harsh whisper to a shout; he never succumbed to a mere “pretty tune.” Having last heard him in Händel’s Partenope last winter and looking forward to his Frosch in the Theater an der Wien production of Fledermaus this summer, it is obvious that Florian Boesch is remarkably versatile.

Julian Rachlin is one of the world’s violin Wunderkinder of the past two decades, and although not born in Vienna, he immigrated here with his parents when he was four. With a relaxed charm, he obviously felt at home, and had people he knew in the audience. There was a true chamber music atmosphere, perhaps as close as one might get in a concert hall to the famous “Schubertiades” at which Schubert’s friends and adorers gathered – singing, reciting poetry and engaging in conversation.

A Schubertiade circa 1820: the composer playing for his friends at home; none of his music was ever performed in public during his lifetime | Painting: Julius Schmid

The first evening was devoted to the three early violin sonatas (sonatinas) composed when Schubert was 19 years old, probably for his older brother Ferdinand. Despite being commonly thought of as easy pieces of light and even childish appeal, Rachlin and his pianist Golan gave them a depth that belied any naiveté.

The second evening began with the Arpeggione Sonata. An arpeggione is an instrument that was invented in Schubert’s lifetime, a curious combination of a guitar and a cello that quickly proved unsuccessful and almost as quickly disappeared.

This sonata is the only reason the arpeggione is remembered. You can see one in the instrument collection at the Hofburg, and on a very rare occasion even hear one in concert (I probably missed the chance of a lifetime in April at the Musikverein’s concert series “Nun klingen sie wieder,” at which historical instruments from museums were played in performance). But Schubert’s sonata endures, played by cellists and violists who are grateful to have a piece of their own by the master. Although they sometimes despair at the inconvenience of playing something that does not lie all that well in transcription – translated from a foreign language, so to speak.

This piece was the only disappointment: Rachlin on the viola seemed overwhelmed by the piano. Not in volume but in energy: Golan was by far the leading partner, despite the piano’s basicly harmonic role.

Certainly the high point of the two evenings was the Fantasy in C-Major D 934, one of the chamber works composed in Schubert’s last flood of inspiration a year before his death. Thirty minutes long, it is reported that during its premiere in January 1828, the hall gradually emptied. It was too strange for the ears of that time.

Where do these magical first notes of the piano come from? Shimmering like a tremolo, arriving from the periphery of silence. And then an ethereal, slow melody in the violin, unending as if sung in a single, infinite breath? For me, this infinity is the soul of Schubert. An early Schubert song, “Sei mir gegrüßt” (let me greet you), is quoted in the mid-section and then worked out as a set of variations in a long conversation between piano and violin. Is this choice of melody the greeting of a love letter? The long meanderings of the Fantasy continue the unrequited story: the passionate outbursts, the resigned melancholy, the short moments of remembered happiness, the unbearable sadness and longing.

The surprise encore, divided up between the two evenings, was Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Even though the revered, older Beethoven lived just down the block from Schubert, nearly literally, it was a jarring shift of mood. And in spite of Rachlin’s (and Golan’s) obvious mastery of this powerful piece, from the first huge chords in the violin, I had the impression that I had just been served a steak – for desert! – after a plate of exquisite sushi.

There is a tendency to ignore the concert series at the Theater an der Wien as it is an opera house. And since the opera productions there are usually so good, the concerts seem to get lost. But the artists presented are often special indeed, and the hall’s acoustics usually live up to what is needed.

One only hopes that the Theater an der Wien will soon get around to installing some spotlights that don’t hum. It really was a nuisance in the quiet opening passages of the andante movement of the D-Major sonata. The lights are singing a pitch around F, the violin is playing in A-Major. Maybe no one else noticed, but it disturbed me.

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