Songs of Innocence and Experience

ARTS, Music
img_schubertThoughts on the Schubert-Symphony No. 5 and Rosamunde Overture performed recently at the New Zealand Festival.

What is the task of interpretation? To render the score left by the composer as he imagined it, as he intended it to be? Some people would answer yes. Some people would say that the problem doesn’t end there. I would say that the problem doesn’t begin there.

I think it is one of the fallacies of the general system of teaching that it does begin there (of course, after one has overcome the basic hurdles of musical education).

When we are taught to play an instrument we are told to play in the style of certain composers, to obey the conventions and so forth. When we are taught Shakespeare in schools, at least in my experience, we are taught about the forms and the language.

Some scholars spend their lives delving into intricate details of textual meanings and the like. In my view they are following the narrow door opened to them by their education.

Most great art is somewhat close to anarchy. In order to understand it, it is better to go down another door. The door of living, searching, suffering, creating, thinking, feeling, loving, losing.

Last night, unable to sleep, I read Hamlet for the first time. I seemed to read it for the first time in the sense that some people say of a particular performance of a Beethoven symphony ‘it was like hearing it for the first time!’

It was like it had just been written.

That is why it is misleading to think in terms of the style of a particular period.

I’m not saying that a stylistic understanding is not a valuable thing, but that undue emphasis shouldn’t be placed on it when performing, or when teaching for that matter. Art, in my understanding of it, is after all not something to be viewed at in a detached way, something from another age. It should be felt as something alive.

Perhaps the ‘charismatic’ (this is not a word I’d ever use [this word is not part of my body, as Barthes might say], but seems to be invariably attached to the name of this conductor) Marc Taddei was aware of a need for a more lively, less stylistically academic point of view.

Part of the New Zealand Festival’s ‘Five by Five’ concert series, Taddei’s programme, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, began with Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture and then moved on to his 5th Symphony.

Schubert’s 5th Symphony is one of the works from his ambitious youth, written at the age of only 19. A work in which his infatuation with Mozart is abundantly clear, it appears to be modeled on Mozart’s 40th Symphony, but unlike that work of Mozart’s late period, it is full of youthful energy and optimism. It is also completely different from Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony which came from Schubert’s middle period (when he was 25!) and which is unmistakably Schubert in every bar.

The concert itself wasn’t dead (the above remarks tend to apply rather to the other festival concert I reviewed, Hopkinson Smith playing 17th Century Spanish music), but there was another problem: there was no evidence of the music having been lived through. The music wasn’t part of Taddei’s body.

It was as if he had just selected a suit that neither fitted nor suited him at all and was wearing it for the first time. He wasn’t even fond of this suit. He was trying to seduce the audience in this suit, but it just wasn’t working, at least for me.

To tell the truth I understood nothing from the beginning of the concert to the end. I just sat there dumbfounded (at first, after a while I began to get rather squirmish). In musical terms during the whole concert, the conductor lacked sensitivity, delicacy (I was complaining about the delicacy of the Spanish guitar concert, but I wished for it here), any evidence of sympathy of the music, let alone love for it.

The whole thing seemed terribly rushed. It was like a poem read without spaces given between the words: the result is scarcely intelligible. Occasionally there was a phrase that sounded pleasant, like a word that had been beautifully annunciated, but without intelligibility this pleasure was futile.

*   *   *

While writing this review, I listened on YouTube to several conductors playing the exposition of the first movement of Schubert’s 5th Symphony.

My favourite was by Abbado, a conductor with whom I have been hitherto unfamiliar. It was only with his version that I wasn’t content to stop at the exposition but had to listen on to the whole first movement.

It was wonderful. My view of this symphony had been that it is an utterly charming piece of music, of such innocence, naivety even, it is so close to Mozart. Schubert’s adoration of Mozart speaks out in every bar.

I hardly considered it a symphony that showed his distinctive voice or was evidence of the genius he had already shown in the lied ‘Der Elrkonig’ and was later to show in his ‘Unfinished’ or ‘Great’ Symphonies.

In Abbado’s interpretation this piece was so utterly charming, as to be poignant, so full of optimism and energy as to be ecstatic, so delicate and yet so filled with a strong undercurrent of joy and longing.

When we compare this 5th Symphony of Schubert’s with his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony of only six years later, the difference is astounding.

There is a CD of Bernstein conducting Mahler that I often listen to. On it is his 1st Symphony, and after that to fill up the time, the first movement of his unfinished 10th Symphony.

Always when I listen to this CD I am struck by the change that occurs between the two pieces. Both are works of genius. But the tone is so different.

In the first symphony completed in 1888 when Mahler was 28, there is such joy, such youthful energy, such optimism. Then in the 10th dating from 1910, a year before his a death, how painful it is! A life of suffering, joy of course, wisdom, depth. It’s like each note is laden down with the experience of life. How bright the former work is, how dark the latter.

There is such a change in the interval between Schubert’s 5th Symphony and his ‘Unfinished’ 8th Symphony. But here the interval is not 22 years, but only 6 years!

In the ‘Unfinished’ it is Schubert in every bar, every bar speaks of suffering, experience. Comparing works from the beginning and the end like this, you realise what a life is.

I was excited to find out what a wonderful conductor Abbado is. Maybe I can go to Europe and hear him, I thought. But then checking up about him on the Internet I was alarmed to read a description of him in the past tense: he died just two months ago, at the age of 80.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marc Taddei, performed ‘Five by Five: Schubert-Symphony No. 5 and Rosamunde Overture’ on March 3 at the New Zealand Festival.

Main Image: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, © Patrycja Swarcynzska.