PianoTexas continued its formal recital series on Thursday evening with a performance by Paul Badura-Skoda, one of the legends of the piano. Ever since the likes of conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan catapulted him to public fame in 1949, he has been one of the lions of the piano. He continues to perform, but has added the distinction of being a musicologist and at the forefront of the original instrument movement since its inception. He has recorded more than 200 LPs and dozens of compact discs including the complete cycles of the piano sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
Because of this, his appearance, at PepsiCo Hall on the campus of Texas Christian University as part of the PianoTexas festival, was so eagerly anticipated. While other concerts given by some of the greatest of the young generation pianists was half filled, Thursday, for Badura-Skoda was a near sellout.
Schubert, in his short lifetime, wrote an amazing amount of music: 600 songs, nine symphonies, masses and liturgical music, many now-forgotten operas, and a large body of chamber and solo piano music. Sadly, he heard very little of his music in his lifetime, but that didn't stop him from writing music every second he was alive. He didn't care who heard it or who even knew it existed. He just wrote—as an apple tree produces apples. It was only after his death that composers, such as Brahms and Mendelssohn, rediscovered him and promoted his compositions. He is now on the level of Beethoven and one of the most frequently performed of the romantic era composers. How surprised he would have been!
The PianoTexas festival featured Schubert this summer and Badura-Skoda's program fit right in - all Schubert. He started with the Drei Klavierstücke D. 946, or "Three Piano Pieces" that Schubert composed just a few months before his untimely death at the age of 31. Brahms assembled this rarely heard cycle after Schubert's death. There is even some question if there were intended to be grouped together, but they make a most enjoyable set.
Badura-Skoda followed this with the Six Moments Musicaux, D 780 (Op. 94). This is a set of six short piano pieces that were much like the songs that Schubert seemed to be able to toss off in very short order. These pieces are a set of six delightful miniatures, a few of which survive as popular works on their own. Once again, this collection dates from the end of Schubert's life.
The second half of the program opened with the Twelve Valses Nobles (Op. 77, D. 969). Although the manuscript is undated, musicologists are in agreement that these were also written in the last year of the composer's life. They are charming and delightful, without being taxing for the pianist. Many were improvisations Schubert did for friends at parties. The non-professional pianists eagerly bought the sheet music, because they were not to taxing, and soon these waltzes were heard everywhere. They were re-discovered along with all of the composer's other music and remain popular today.
The masterpiece of Schubert's last months was the Piano Sonata in B flat Major, D. 960, which closed Badura-Skoda's program. At this point in is life, Schubert was virtually homeless, composing frantically to get the music out of his head before he died, and in the end stage of syphilis. He suffered from weakness, headaches, dizziness, hints of madness and effusions of blood. I would have given up. Still, he pushed on and composed this glorious sonata, one of three, for an instrument he could only imagine might exist in the future.
Pianos of Schubert's day were a far cry form the magnificent Bösendorfer grand piano that Badura-Skoda played on Thursday. Those the composer had access to, when he had a piano nearby at all, must have been even worse. Yet this sonata taxes the abilities of even this great Bösendorfer instrument right from the start, with its full sonorities and low bass trill. Schubert must have imagined this Bösendorfer in his mind as he wrote this sonata; feverish and dying, fearing he was to be forgotten and ignored, yet pressing on.
Badura-Skoda was at his best in this sonata, but his approach to the piano is dated and does not compare favorably to today's crop of technically immaculate and musically pre-mature pianists. He is awkward at the keyboard and seems to be straining the whole time. He overuses the sustaining pedal and frequently hits wrong notes inadvertently. He is unable to layer his dynamics; both hands constantly play at the same level and thus the accompaniment figures compete unfavorably with the solo line. Most of the program has a sameness to it that made it difficult to distinguish what he was playing, if you didn't already know the scores.
However, his performance had an honestly to it that is lacking today in our fresh crop of virtuosi. Just as you would not judge the sound of an early piano against the glorious Bösendorfer, it is unfair to judge Badura-Skoda by the measure of the teenaged, steely techniqued Van Cliburn contestants of today, where a single wrong note can eliminate them from the competition. Badura-Skoda, and his generation, would scoff at such a silly reason for a disqualification.
He comes from a different time and place and we are fortunate to be able to hear – live - how the piano was played by the past generation of artists. Few of his colleagues are still performing, leaving us only recordings from which to judge. This is not to minimize Badura-Skoda for a second or to put him in a museum as a relic. He is a great pianist, not to mention n that he changed the very idea of performance practices to include the original instruments and musical customs of Schubert's (as well as Mozart and Beethoven's) era or his meticulous editing of that repertoire. We are fortunate that Badura-Skoda is still performing, as he lets us hear how the piano was played when he was a formative young artist in an earlier era. It takes a moment for our ears to adjust, but once they do, we find riches there to be relished.
There is much to learn from hearing his performances and the standing ovation at the end of the program was not just for the performance of the Schubert sonata. It was in gratitude for his decades of service to the piano and its repertoire.
◊ The PianoTexas Distinguished Artist Series continues with:
- Akiko Ebi Tuesday, June 26, 7:30 p.m., PepsiCo Recital Hall
- Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher Thursday, June 28, 7:30 p.m., PepsiCo Recital Hall