Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sound and its Proper Scale

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a Degas sculpture of a young ballerina getting ready to take a step.  Having seen only photographs of this life-like figure I was amazed that it was actually less than two feet high.  That sculpture haunts me.  So much vitality, so much potential movement, condensed to a larger- than-life fourteen or fifteen inches.

The opposite effect was evident in a recent performance of Schubert's Moments Musicaux at Avery Fisher Hall.  It was as if someone had blown up that haunting Degas figure to the size of the monstrous nudes in the lobby of the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle.

To achieve this requires a simplification of all the elements of those pieces that make them powerful, predominantly their mysterious resonances, both rhythmic and harmonic.

Both are epitomized in the second piece, the almost lullaby-like Andantino in 9/8.   Schubert hides the heart of the piece in the chordal doublings..  But these doublings are neither visible to the theoretically-biased eye, which discerns discrete chords rather than continuous resonance, nor audible to the audience seated a block away from the piano.  (Artur Rubinstein, perhaps unique among pianists, knew how to bring the top row of the balcony into his awareness of overtones.)  To hold the audience's attention in a too-large room the pianist brought out the melody, thereby obscuring the work's hidden grounding in repeating doubled E-flats.  Within their solidity harmonies shift but never completely change--there is always a melt between sounds.

This melt is possible only on the piano--even on the piano of Schubert's day it would have been the most obviously surprising element of sound available to a keyboard player.  The post-commercial-recording culture, by removing all traces of that melt, has frozen the sound of classical music, not just of the piano, but of highly resonant stringed instruments as well. 

In the next post I will discuss the rhythmic resonances of this work.