konarock : @rtbeat

The Odd Couple : Schubert and Beckett

An odd couple perhaps, who lived  about a century and half apart in their irreconciliably different milieux. In matters of temperament and attitude there is nothing remotely compatible between the expansive and mellifluous romantic composer and the sardonic and nihilistic playwright of the absurd. 

Yet deep down, the romantic yearning of melancholic Schubert resonates perfectly with Beckett's morose pessimism, as if they are soul mates in suffering. Indeeed Beckett was  known to have been a passionate fan of Schubert and used to play his music especially the lieder and chamber works all the time. Notable among these were Der Tod und das Mädchen ('Death and the Maiden'), both the original song and the D-minor quartet,  and Die Winterreise ('Winter journey'), the famous song cycle.

At a  recent cross-genre event of New Visions (part of the 2009/2010 Lincoln Center Great Performers season) at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, just such an artistic symbiosis was in evidence. The 'happening' - not just a recital nor a literary reading - presented Schubert's Winterreise in counterpoint with readings of poetry and prose passages from Beckett. The gripping performance by Mark Padmore accompanied by Andrew West on the piano and  contrasted with text readngs by the actor Stephen Dillane, was directed by Katie Mitchell. The uncluttered simplicity of the barely minimum staging somehow enhanced the intimate atmosphere. One is transported to a different reality :  of footsteps on the snow, song in the head, words echoing in the brain, memory churning despair, despondency, regret.

It's a pity such events do not get wider audiences or popularity. Yet some of the risks in such experimental projects can often outweigh the artistic gain. For instance, there were some detractors, like the reported walkouts during a London presentation. The reasons are valid and understandable : the dropping of some of the song numbers, or speaking rather than singing some songs seem hardly justified; and perhaps the worst travesty was the idea of singing in English rather than in the  original German. There are many great recordings which are faithful to the original score in every sense. Notable among these are the ones of Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin, or probably the ultimate   Schubert interpretation by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore.

Nothwithstanding the misgiving, however, this was a rare and rewarding musical experience. But the idea is hardly new. Many years ago, there was an exactly similar venture, but in video. Like  many Beckett characters,  my memory is quite foggy; all I remember is seeing it on television, not sure if in this country or in Britain, not sure about the play  either, but it was about one of his 'compound ghosts' of anti-heroes on the edge of nothingness, silently walking to nowhere in an absurd landscape. No words, spoken or sung, no other sound  except, from the abyss of silence, strains of the second movement  from Schubert's D-minor quartet - essentially,  theme and variations on Death and the Maiden, hence its nickname - emanate and gradually overpower the senses. It's quite easy and tempting to dismiss this as mere background music; that would be a grave mistake  tantamount to a failure to see the subtle modulations of the waves producing a unique artistic experience quite distinct from the originals. But for most others this remains an unforgettable experience of wrenching pathos.

Schubert: Die Winterreise, Schwanengesang / Gérard Souzay : The famous recordings by Souzay/Baldwin team. A 2-disc set with an additional piece, Schwanengesang - Schubert's final 'swan song' written in 1828, the year of his death.
Schubert: Winterreise / Fischer-dieskau, Gerald Moore: The classic reference recording and a favorite among collectors and musicians alike.

Schubert: Death And The Maiden, Quartettsatz / Amadeus Qt:Another classic re-issue, this string quartet. One of the most acclaimed  interpretations of Schubert's chamber music.
Schubert: Death And The Maiden, Etc / The Lydian Quartet: A special order issue, with both the quartet and the original song on the same disc,  plus a bonus item. Worth the wait.