Monday, April 30, 2012

Sublime Schubert: Eschenbach and the LA Phil

Chamber Works, Orchestrated Songs and the C Major Symphony

Review by Rodney Punt

Between the years of 1818 and 1822, composer Franz Schubert, previously a whirlwind of prodigious creativity, experienced a compositional crisis and was unable to complete several large-scale works. Abandoned were four symphonies, a sacred cantata and a quartet. His c
ontracting of syphilis in late 1822 or early 1823 further darkened the composer's outlook but also steeled his resolve with the time left him to reach for the model of Beethoven's monumental achievements.

The LA Phil’s recent "Sublime Schubert" series probed Schubert’s double-track pursuit of vocal and instrumental music coming out of this crisis. Two concerts – one chamber, one orchestral -- complemented the two earlier reviewed song cycles. Musicians from within the orchestra’s ranks, under the banner of the Chamber Music Society, ventured works on an intimate scale for a Tuesday evening installment of the weeklong series.
Schubert identified his String Quartet No. 13 ("Rosamunde") -- written in 1823-4 along with an octet -- as preparatory for the grand symphony he would soon compose. While the quartet's moniker evokes the charming Biedermeier-like incidental music Schubert had just provided for a theatrical play, it's an entirely more serious work, the first of three last quartets and his answer to like works of his older contemporary.

The LA Phil’s musicians caught the quartet’s spirit in a smooth, generally soft-edged rendition that lacked only the assertive flair of long-tenured ensembles. They 
imbued the work’s first movement with a Mozartian mix of grace and melancholy, carried over into both the eponymous Andante and the later Menuetto, and shading darker the bucolic charm of the concluding Allegro.
Schubert’s late Quintet for 2 violins, viola & 2 cellos in C Major, completed only weeks before his death, is considered one of the greatest chamber works ever composed and is a favorite of professional musicians. Its Adagio is often performed at funerals; I heard it as such in the 1998 Vienna memorial for soprano Leonie Rysanek. While acknowledging death’s nearness, however, the work also defies it.
Within another configuration of the LA Phil's musicians, its performance soared to almost symphonic dimensions with rich, full-bodied string sonorities that emphasized life-embracing rather than life-effacing moods. Usually tragic, the Adagio movement sounded in this context almost seraphic. The additional cello's gentle pizzicato set against the sustained quartet strings of the ensemble in that Adagio foreshadows its string bass counterpart in the Schubert C Major Symphony performed later that week. Vivid sonorities in the rustic Scherzo and soulful Trio led to the celebratory embrace of the final Allegretto. It was a splendid outing for the estimable Chamber Music Society project.

Concluding orchestra performances over the weekend showcased both Schubert’s intimate and expansive visions while providing insights into his profound influence over the rest of the century. Taking a cue from the earlier song cycles, conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the LA Phil, with baritone Matthias Goerne, presented nine rarely heard orchestral versions of Schubert’s lieder, including two encores.
Attracted to the composer’s unparalleled songs, later composers arranged them to fit all instrumental sizes from solo piano to full orchestra, advancing Schubert’s standing as the essential harbinger of the Romantic era. While Europe's musical scene divided into two distinct branches of Romanticism – conservative and progressive – both claimed Schubert as the fountainhead. The composer’s larger instrumental works were to come to public attention only sporadically and later.

Often on the opera stage, lieder specialist Goerne was in comfortable and resonant voice for the amped-up sonorities. In turn, Eschenbach and the LA Phil were attentive to his lead. Orchestrations by the era’s A-list master craftsmen included the richly textured “Memnon” of Johannes Brahms; dramatic renditions of “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” and “Erlkönig” by Max Reger (less effective was his elephantine-chiffoned “Im Abendrot”); a delicately textured “Der Wegweiser” from Winterreise and “Tränenregen” from Die schöne Müllerin by a young Anton Webern, and the anonymously arranged “An Silvia”. Encored were "Ständchen” from Schwanengesang and the anthem of all singers, “An die Musik” in arrangements by Webern.

“Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” and especially “Erlkönig” provide enticing glimpses into
Schubert’s potential as a dramatic opera composer, an aspiration thwarted at every turn during his lifetime, but one that would surely have taken hold had he lived long enough. Schubert’s incipient mastery of large orchestral forms would eventually have synchronized with his uncanny ability to characterize the most intimate dramatic moments in his songs. Alas, not enough time was left him.

The Sublime Schubert survey concluded with Eschenbach and the LA Phil's performance of the "Great" Symphony in C Major. It was the product of Schubert's summer 1825 recital tour with his friend and mentor, baritone Michael Vogl. The two traversed the scenic Upper Austria region, known as the Salzkammergut for its thrusting mountains and plunging valleys. Energized by its beauty, Schubert tackled that grand symphony he had long envisioned, writing about it from the village way stations of Gmunden and Gastein. From its opening horn invocation to the ascendant stirrings of its last movement, the symphony breathes the air of this vast natural cathedral. Schubert’s "Sommerreise" (as Roger Norrington dubbed it) is a model of lyric expansiveness, with structural implications that would later be exploited by Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.

Eschenbach's approach, as in his piano collaborations with Goerne earlier in the week, emphasized clean lines, broad tempi and emphatic phrasing. His mannered and titanic Luftpausen before downbeats underlined phrases, but after several repetitions flirted with cliché. Pumped up grandiosity in this already pulsing symphony was, by the fourth movement, overkill to Schubert's cosmic conception, overshadowing the work's more lyric moments. The monumental style seemed frozen in old-school aspic. Still, Eschenbach was consistent in his vision and shaped the orchestra's strings into rhythmically sharp attacks, coaxed its woodwinds into lush statements, and let its brass glow with glorious incantations, a few cracks notwithstanding.

The week-long Sublime Schubert, so often dwelling in the night of winter journeys, had concluded in a determined, day-bright C Major.


NOTE: The above photographs were taken by the author on a trip to Austria in September, 2011. They provide some idea of an area Schubert was to find beautiful and inspiring. Top: Schubert Memorial at Gmunden, the town where he composed parts of the "Great" C Major Symphony. Middle top: painted skulls in Hallstatt's church, with the date of 1825 on a memorial; it happens also to have been the year Schubert visited the Salzkammergut region and composed his grand symphony. Middle bottom: the lakeside village of Hallstatt, where the tradition of painting skulls originated. Bottom: The Salzkammergut alpine mountains, mentioned by Schubert in such glowing terms in a letter to his brother Ferdinand.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 8:00PM

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 
Los Angeles, CA 
Schubert: String Quartet No. 13 ("Rosamunde"), D 804
Elizabeth Baker, violin 
Jin Shan Dai, violin 
Benjamin Ullery, viola 
Jason Lippmann, cello

Schubert: Quintet for 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos in C major, D 956
Gloria Lum & 
Jonathan Karoly, cello; 
Nathan Cole & 
Akiko Tarumoto, violin; 
Ingrid Hutman, viola 

Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00PM 
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA 
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, Matthias Goerne, baritone
Schubert: Orchestrated Songs
An Silvia, D 891 (anonymous orchestration)
Memnon, D 541 (orch. Johannes Brahms)

Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D 583 (orch. Max Reger)
Der Wegweiser, D 911, No. 20 (from Winterreise) (orch. Anton Webern)

Im Abendrot, D 799 (orch. Max Reger) 
Tränenregen, D 795, No. 10 (from Die schöne Müllerin) (orch. Anton Webern)
Erlkönig, D 328 (orch. Max Reger)
Ständchen, D 957, No. 4 (from Schwanengesang, orch. Anton Webern) as encore 
An die Musik, D 547 (orch. Anton Webern) as encore 
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major,"Great", D 944

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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