Today’s recitalist in the Noontime Concerts™ series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was violist Elizabeth Prior, accompanied by pianist Aileen Chanco. She performed one piece composed for viola and piano, Robert Schumann’s Opus 113 set of four short pieces, which he called “Märchenbilder” (fairy tale pictures). The other was Franz Schubert’s D. 821 sonata in A minor, composed for the arpeggione but almost ways played in transcription, since the very existence of the instrument in the present day is due almost entirely to the efforts of Nicolas Deletaille to revive it. Prior’s performance was more than a little inconsistent, hitting the mark with insightful interpretations almost as much as missing it.
She was at her best in the more introspective outer movements of the Schumann pieces. In many respects the opening movement is the most “picture-like,” with thematic statements in both viola and piano that overlap each other, rather the way in which objects in an illustration overlap to convey their spatial relationships. This movement of one of Schumann’s last pieces of chamber music was given an elegantly seamless account. The same could be said of the final movement, in which the viola embeds itself as an inner voice (“tenor” in the medieval sense of the word) between upper and lower voices provided by the piano. The result was a harmonic blend of differing sonorities that revealed Schumann at his most imaginative.
The faster inner movements did not fare quite as well. Prior brought an element of fire to the rapid bowing of the third (Rasch) movement; but the overall shape of the movement never emerged with the clarity of the outer movements. Similarly, the “hunting picture” of the second movement (the most explicitly referential of the four “pictures”) needed sharper articulation to capture its urgent spirit properly.
In the Schubert sonata, again, things were best at a slower tempo. The middle Adagio movement offered a nice perspective of thematic material that could have had its roots in any of the many songs Schubert had composed. Similarly, there was much to admire in the episodic approach to the sonata form of the opening movement; but the concluding rondo succumbed to too much of a sense that each return of the theme was merely a reproduction of what had preceded it.