- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

The year 2008 marks the 180th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s death. What better way to celebrate the life of this renowned Austrian composer than a gracious musical evening at the Austrian Embassy highlighting the composer’s art songs and one of his rarely heard chamber masterworks?

That was the idea behind the latest Embassy Series concert on Saturday evening, as baritone Jerome Barry, the series’ executive and artistic director, and members of the Fessenden Ensemble presented a recital of Schubert’s lieder and his magnificent “Octet in F major, D803.”

In some ways, Schubert was the Rodney Dangerfield of his era. He got no respect. A short, pudgy working-class kid from Vienna, he was rarely able to hold down a music teaching job, living the bulk of his adult life in relative poverty. In spite of incessant efforts by his many friends and admirers, his increasingly well-regarded compositions were rarely able to find a publisher. Upon his untimely death at the age of 31, it seemed as if he would, like so many composers, be consigned to a footnote of musical history.

Fortunately, Schubert’s art songs, or lieder, continued to grow in popularity after his death. No less a composer than Robert Schumann discovered the dusty manuscript of Schubert’s towering “9th Symphony” in 1838. This led to its first performance and ultimately to a permanent place in the repertoire as one of the greatest symphonies ever written, assuring Schubert’s posthumous admission into the pantheon of superstar composers.

His lieder are remarkable, not only for their consistently high musical quality, but for their dramatic inventiveness.

Mr. Barry seized upon this dramatic element in his selection of Schubert lieder on Saturday evening. Ably accompanied by pianist George Peachey, Mr. Barry not only sang the wonderful songs but also declaimed them, transforming each into the tiny musical dramas the composer surely intended them to be. His German diction was impeccable and his delivery varied appropriately between the melancholy of Schubert’s famous “Serenade” and the headlong excitement of the composer’s melodramatic “Erlkonig” (roughly “evil spirit”).

The latter is a wildly galloping mini-tone poem in which a desperate father tries to save his ailing young son by outrunning Death. The song later became famous, ironically, by its overuse as villain music in American cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Mr. Barry successfully re-created the visceral excitement of the original, penned while Schubert was only in his teens.

The program’s second half was taken up by Schubert’s nearly hourlong “Octet in F major.” It’s a lovely work that’s rarely heard, simply because there aren’t too many regularly performing “octets” of eight musicians in today’s classical music scene. The problem was solved quite simply by inviting members of the Washington area chamber group, the Fessenden Ensemble. High and low strings, horn, bassoon and clarinet perform the “Octet.”

It is a difficult and taxing work and the ensemble got off to a wobbly start in the opening movement with some noticeable intonation problems in the horn part. Nonetheless, the players gained in confidence, performing the tricky “Allegro vivace” scherzo with panache. They concluded brilliantly with Schubert’s rousing finale that commenced with a tension-ridden tremolo in the low strings that soon erupted into a joyous, almost martial finale in the major key.

***

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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