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Scott Foglesong combines his piano and lecturing skills for an engaging recital

Title page of Bach's Opus 1
Title page of Bach's Opus 1
from Wikipedia (public domain)

The program book for Scott Foglesong’s Faculty Artist Series recital yesterday afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music began with the title Leipzig, Vienna and Rio. While it was clear that this title was applicable to the composers whose music would be performed, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, any references to geography were kept to a minimum. Instead, it became quickly clear from Foglesong’s opening remarks that the program could just as easily have been called My Favorite Things, even in Foglesong never specifically used that phrase (which was probably just as well).

Nevertheless, that latter title bears some relevance, not only because Foglesong clearly enjoyed playing each of the pieces he programmed but also because, as those who have heard any of his pre-concert talks or Fromm lectures know full well, talking about music is as much a “favorite thing” for him as playing it. Thus, Foglesong’s verbal introductions to each of the pieces he presented were as engaging as his performances and certainly played a major role in establishing a context for the serious listener. I have to confess that one of my own “favorite things” is following the chain of reasoning when Foglesong gives one of his introductions. I may not always agree with him, but it is only by following his path carefully that I can identify the grounds upon which I can establish my own refutations.

For this particular program the case that Foglesong chose to make was less that the selections were his favorite things but that each was something the composer wrote for his own personal pleasure, rather than to satisfy the request (or command) from some third party. Thus, the claim regarding the first work on the program, Bach’s BWV 826 partita in C minor, was that this music, along with the other five keyboard partitas, was composed with publication in mind as a means for advancing Bach’s reputation beyond his work as Cantor of the Thomasschule at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Each of these partitas was initially published separately, beginning in 1725; but, after all six were composed in 1731, Bach published them as a single volume, which he labeled his Opus 1.

However, what Foglesong overlooked was that the title of that volume was Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice); and it was to become the first of a set of four that Bach wrote between 1731 and 1741. As a result, my own reading of the situation is that the reputation that Bach wished to advance was that, in addition to being a master of playing the keyboard, he was also a master of keyboard pedagogy. Publication allowed him to extend his skills to people who could not come to him in person, thus fostering a practice that we now call “distance learning.”

As I have previously observed, Bach’s approach to pedagogy was a pragmatic one concerned with making music as a skilled practice. That practice rested on the combination of two skill sets, one dealing with the physical proficiency of engaging with the keyboard and the other with the capacity for invention that engages the “mind beyond the motor system.” Through Foglesong’s remarks, one could appreciate the scope of invention at play in the BWV 826 partita, a scope that encompassed not only the subtlety of detail but also equally subtle links that bound the six movements of this composition into an integrated whole.

All this, however, was just a prelude for the performance itself. When elaborate counterpoint is in play, it is rare that the mind behind the ear can keep up with all the notes pouring forth from the instrument(s) in play. Foglesong had a keen sense of the “spirit of conversation” within this welter of simultaneity, identifying specific motivic elements and then expressing how they would migrate from one contrapuntal voice to another. This was achieved, in no small part, through meticulous attention to dynamic levels that could not have been achieved on a harpsichord from Bach’s time. Nevertheless, this was decidedly a “historically-informed” performance through its exquisite balance of pedagogical and aesthetic priorities, not to mention a reminder that there is so much in any one Bach composition that there will never be a shortage of fresh approaches to it.

In the case of Brahms, the personal pleasure arose from writing pieces on a short durational scale at the end of a life in which so much of his time had gone into the challenges of larger structures, such as those of the symphony. In 1892 and 1893 Brahms published four sets of short pieces for piano, all carrying relatively abstract and nondescript titles. These were the seven “fantasias” of Opus 116, the three intermezzos of Opus 117, the six pieces of Opus 118, and the four pieces of Opus 119. (Note that, for the last two sets, Brahms decided not to use any noun more specific than “pieces.”) Foglesong selected four of these for his recital. Three were intermezzos, the first of the Opus 118 set, the first in Opus 117, and the fourth in Opus 116, while the third piece he performed was the third in Opus 118, which Brahms called a “ballad.”

In talking about these pieces, Foglesong suggested that all four sets could be viewed as a single collection. That position clearly informed his approach to sampling, but I am not sure I embrace his point of view. Although all four sets were composed over such a short duration, I still feel that their chronology cannot be overlooked. While these were not the first short pieces that Brahms had composed (consider the brevity of some of his vocal works), it is reasonable to assume that the move into a strictly instrumental domain was a venture into unknown territory. As a result, I believe that one can make a case for a “learning curve” that emerges in the “progress” from Opus 116 to Opus 119. In Opus 116 Brahms was just beginning to “find his way,” while his confidence was so firm in Opus 119 that he could even end that set with a larger-scale rhapsody.

I raise this point because, in Foglesong’s performance, the positioning of the Opus 116 intermezzo at the end of his set came off as a bit of an anticlimax. It is not hard to think of a “rhetoric of searching” in this piece, which would have been entirely appropriate had Foglesong decided to begin with it. However, in the context of the more confidently articulated structures of Opus 118, that final intermezzo left one with the sense that Brahms was slipping at his craft.

The next personal pleasure on the program was that of four movements from Heitor Villa-Lobos’ A Prolé do Bébé (Baby’s family) suite. The “family members” were three dolls, each of a different material (porcelain, papier-mâché, and rag), and a Pulchinella puppet. If Villa-Lobos was out of place in this program, it was only because Foglesong’s introduction gave the impression that he took personal pleasure in everything he composed. However, these pieces are still distinguished as character studies, even if they involve endowing toys with personalities.

Foglesong’s performance also expressed the extent to which Villa-Lobos could drawn upon disparate sources of inspiration and blend them together into a tasty Brazilian feijoada. This was particularly evident in the suggestion that the porcelain doll was a Chinese figure. In this case Villa-Lobos superimposed stereotypically pentatonic “Chinese” motifs against a more Brazilian tune, both blended together with the textures of French modernism that began to emerge after the First World War.

Foglesong’s examination of these three composers thus made for an impressive and informative journey. However, that only accounted for the first half of the program. The second half was devoted to Schubert’s final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. This was composed shortly before Schubert’s death at the end of 1828; and, between its vast durational scale and its boldly inventive harmonic progressions, it is hard to imagine that Schubert was only 31 when he wrote it.

In introducing this sonata, Foglesong talked about how assiduously Schubert had studied the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. One might then appreciate that the liberties that Beethoven took with the conventions of harmonic progression may have been the inspiration for Schubert taking even greater liberties. My personal admiration, however, always seems to gravitate to Schubert’s capacity to unfold an extended prolongation of what had begun as an almost insignificant embellishment. I am reminded of how John Cage once observed that a lichen is little more than a dot of color on the surface of a rock until you decide to look at it through a magnifying glass. The extended architectural forms that emerge in many of Schubert’s last compositions seem to be the result of his compulsive need to apply that metaphorical magnifying glass to everything he wrote, sometimes (often?) at the note-by-note level.

In the midst of this almost superhuman productivity, Foglesong could still perform D. 960 with a focus on the compelling expressiveness of its rhetoric. For all of the cerebration that probably went into composing this sonata, it is still one of Schubert’s most emotionally intense works. Foglesong found that sweet spot from which all of that emotion emerged in full dramatic impact, but he delivered that message without ever wallowing in it. This is music that seizes both heart and mind; but Foglesong always made it a point to let the music, rather than the performer, do all the necessary talking.

The result was a major undertaking for audience as well as performer. It was thus a bit impressive that, after all of those efforts, Foglesong still had enough in him for an encore. Here he returned to the rhetoric of brevity with “Bruyères” (heather), the fifth piece in Claude Debussy’s second book of preludes. To the extent that this provided a sense of calm in the wake of the wild coda that concluded Schubert’s sonata, the selection was perfect programming; and Foglesong’s execution allowed us all to collect our wits before going back into the crowded streets of San Francisco.

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