Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 Oil on Canvas

The ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts presented Romantic Vienna at the Italian Academy this past Thursday as part of the Musical Capital series.  The program works to further understanding of “music in context.”  The evening focused on two works, Franz Schubert’s Sonata for arpeggione and piano in A minor and Brahms towering Quintet for piano and strings in F minor  — a solid dose of the spiritual and aesthetic values of nature.  And of course the imagery of dreams.

The “Wiener Klassik” or Viennese Classical Style between 1780 and 1827 led by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven reflected order and symmetry.  Vienna, the capital of the newly minted Austrian Empire, became a center for musical performance and composition raising the prominence of this city.  The death of Beethoven in 1827 ushered in a new period of Romanticism, a seed that the great composer planted with his late works that were moving away from strict classicism.  In Franz Schubert’s (1813-1897) short lifetime he continued this process of compositional experimentation that was greatly effected by new developments in the musical instruments, namely the piano.  The arpeggione, a six-stringed hybrid between a cello and a guitar also had a brief moment is music history.  Schubert would play in salon-style performances that were convivial in nature.  Stephen Johnson, the eloquent BBC Radio presenter, commented on the intimacy and non-competitive nature of these musical soirées in his preconcert talk that touched upon this period of profound change both economically and artistically.

The arpeggione, a six-stringed hybrid between a cello and a guitar had a brief moment is musical history.  The instrument took center stage in Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata,  a work of wistful nature that toggles from nostalgia to a more airy nonchalance.  “As the accompanist Graham Jonson puts it, its character is one of mellow introspection and poignancy rather than profound tragedy,” read the liner notes.  The sense of longing and wonder in the piece perfectly illustrates the very Romantic characteristic of reverie.

Johannes Brahms (1813-1897) Quintet for piano and strings in F minor was the main event of the evening, a composition that has the ability to lift both musicians and observer out of their seats.  A powerful work of High Romanticism the Quintet passed through stages of instrumental preference, from string quintet to Sonata for two pianos before crystallizing in its present form.  Brahms dedicated the work to Princess Anna Hesse in Berlin who was an ardent supporter and tantalizing court figure.  Stephen Johnson painted a wonderful picture of Brahms as a Janus-like figure, deeply embedded in the study of classicism but heavily engaged in the psychology of Romanticism.  This intense emotional makeup is on full display throughout the work described as “positively Byronic” by Johnson.

Portrait of Anna Langäfin von Hessen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

A wonderful ensemble led by Vsevolod Dvorkin on piano were in sync throughout Brahms’s distinguished work.  The theme, which is stated in the first eight measures, takes a dramatic and extended journey.  The first movement in Allegro non troppo is a study of thematic inventions and rhythmic variety while tendering a noble character through chromatic leaps into major key inflections and syncopation.  The Andante is a quiet intermezzo contrasting the tumultuous action and contrapuntal character of the allegro.  After this incredibly sensual movement, the Scherzo takes on more ominous tones accentuated by the plucking of the cello in C.  The pulsating Allegro Finale  ranges from F to D-flat-major, to C minor and back to F with qualities reminiscent of Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance.”  The agitated final measures emphatically return to the final three notes of F minor scale with the resounding force.

The Musical Capitals series continues on February 23, with Prague: Czech Romantics.  For more information visit www.aspectfoundation.net.