SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, D944 "The Great." GÁL: Symphony No. 2 in F, op. 53.
Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair.
Avie AV2225 TT: 99:19 (2 CDs).
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Lovely. At one of the memorable concerts of my life, I heard the young Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair solo with the Cleveland Orchestra in the Beethoven concerto. That particular score has no notes, no flash, to hide behind. The violinist must bare his musicianship, his intellect, and his emotional maturity. Zehetmair demonstrated significant portions of all three. That he became a conductor didn't really surprise me.

Schubert finished his "Great C Major" in 1828. He never heard it. After his death, his brother Ferdinand tried to interest orchestras in it without success. Robert Schumann, during a visit to Vienna in 1839, accidentally discovered it as he sifted through the composer's manuscripts at Ferdinand's lodgings, wrote a rave essay, and got Mendelssohn to conduct it in Leipzig. Even so, very few orchestras, if any, took it up, at least in its entirety. Two movements were played in Vienna in 1850. A London orchestra cancelled its performance when in rehearsal, its players refused to have anything more to do with it. The piece didn't really become a repertory staple until well into the 20th Century. On the other hand, among composers -- Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, among others -- the piece exerted terrific influence among composers as a way to move past Beethoven.

We can attribute much of the difficulty of Schubert's symphonies making their way to the patronizing attitude of 19th-century audiences toward the composer, seen as a "mere" songwriter (although a genius) rather than as an instrumental composer. You find all sorts of references, even today, of Schubert's "naïve genius." It's a false, sentimental view, in my opinion. You can't write the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet, the cello quintet, or the last two symphonies on divine afflatus alone. There's enough head-work in Schubert's chamber and orchestral music to knock such foolishness out of the head of anybody who stirs himself to take a look. In many ways, we still don't really understand what Schubert was up to and how he changed the course of symphonic genres.

With this score, Schubert follows several different paths in creating symphonic movements. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven generally worked with a small set of musical cells in a movement (usually 2-5), combining and recombining them into several larger themes, creating new cells by varying the old ones -- expanding intervals and the like. Critics credit Beethoven with two innovations: keeping the same basic set of ideas from movement to movement; using an identifiable rhythm, unencumbered by specific pitches, as a thematic cell (as in the Fifth Symphony, for example). Schubert picks up the last technique somewhere around the Symphony No. 6 (1818) but becomes a sophisticated user only in his later years. The Ninth's opening movement strikes me as the most radical. Although Schubert occasionally uses here Classical symphonic techniques (he began as a talented teen follower of Haydn), much of this movement has nothing to do with the Classical symphony or, indeed, even Beethoven. You'd have to go to something as wild as the Egmont Overture to find something remotely similar. For one thing, Schubert's "cells" go far beyond the usual 5- or 6-note maximum. Indeed, his cells are pretty much entire themes. Furthermore, there's very little development in the usual sense. I can think of only one passage in the entire first movement. Instead, Schubert strings together what amount to songs for the orchestra. Nevertheless, the movement -- the entire symphony, for that matter -- hangs together through some alchemy -- a psychological coherence rather than one you can trace through the pages. Incidentally, none of the movements lasts less than 12 minutes, and the score's entire duration runs close to an hour.

I find it instructive to compare Schubert's Ninth with Beethoven's, particularly in the matter of length. Both lie in the same neighborhood -- Beethoven slightly more than an hour, Schubert slightly less. Both face similar problems of coherence rising from the huge scale. Remember that at the time, people considered a 40-minute symphony gargantuan and that the longer a piece of music goes on, the greater the probability of sprawl. Beethoven keeps a tight, stingy grip on, once again, a few cells, subjecting them to virtuosic variation. Schubert, on the other hand, tends to write long songs, almost folk-like in their structure and without words -- indeed, mini-cycles of such songs. With Beethoven, you sense a constant compression, which among other things builds tension and sustains interest. With Schubert, something always seems opening up -- a new vista when you reach the top of the current hill -- a long, easy, magisterial expansion. Schumann rhapsodized over the Schubert Ninth's "heavenly lengths." I think he meant this feeling.

The second movement, a purposeful march, uses procedures typical of Haydn and Beethoven—those basic cells again, including rhythmic ones. It has the air of a miniature about it, but it runs more than twelve minutes. Some of its effect arises from mostly low dynamics and very clear scoring, even at climaxes. Some of it I find due to the contrast between the march rhythm and its lyrical contrast, where we stop and take a long look at the countryside. In any case, this seems to me the symphony's most characteristically Schubertian movement.
The third-movement scherzo shows the most obvious influence of Beethoven, especially in its employment of thematic rhythm, but it is also intensely Schubert. His unmistakable voice shows up clearly in the lyrical sections. It's a way of singing, based on Germanic folksong, that hadn't been thought of before, not even by Mozart in Zauberflöte. Papageno still sings in 18th-century dress. Schubert's pastoral lyricism here reminds me of the Romantic landscape painters in the line of the Dutch school.

The "Allegro vivace" finale immediately forsakes "lively" and whirls straight into "manic." I've come to feel that those players who understand the music's character give us impressions of musical crackheads. Schubert uses mainly two ideas -- nervous vs. lyrical -- with a few side trips. Thematic rhythms, rather than actual themes or varied cells, from earlier movements occasionally hang about like ghosts. Again, the movement flies by, despite its actual 14-minute length. Schubert, of course, has mastered melody, capable of coming up with more than just a pretty or memorable tune (although that's a lot right there). He can create integral tunes -- those with all meat and no filler -- of various lengths. It so happens that I've recently listened to the songs of Vernon Duke, composer of "Autumn in New York," "Not a Care in the World," "I Like the Likes of You," "April in Paris" -- great songs, every one of them. Yet, all of them have spots obviously propped up with art, rather than pure inspiration. With Schubert, I simply can't tell when he sweats. He doesn't seem to do anything, and yet at the end, you find yourself somewhere in the empyrean.

Apparently, the Schubert provides the lure to buy the disc, but the producers' apparently really want to get you into the music of Hans Gál. Born in Vienna to a secular Jewish family in 1890, Gál died in 1987. He fled Austria to England before the Anschluß. His dates might mislead you about his music -- Late Romantic. Even during his heyday, despite some success, he was better known for his pedagogy (he headed the Mainz Conservatory), historical writings on the Viennese musical tradition, and his work as one of the editors of the complete Brahms. His biggest hit during his lifetime was an opera improbably titled Die heilige Ente (1921) -- literally "the holy duck," but I suspect more "the sacred hoax or scam." Gál's exile wrecked his career. His wife became a cleaning woman in Edinburgh. After alien internment, he worked for six months at the university on a research project and, as far as I can tell, never received another official appointment. How he survived, I have little idea. His mother died in Austria. One month later, on the eve of their deportation to Auschwitz, his sister and aunt committed suicide. His son, a student in Edinburgh, also committed suicide. These events provide the immediate background to Gál's Second Symphony (1943).

I tend to treat harshly those transitional artists who never even tried to make the jump to Modernism. I also recognize this as a critical flaw. One should judge a work for itself rather than by criteria an artist never accepted. Still, I catch myself from time to time. However, I'm an amateur. Professionals making the same mistake led to the near-complete disappearance of Gál's music after the war. This is the only Gál score I've heard, but Avie has four more discs.

Gál's Second stands in the Brahmsian line. He builds clear, classically-derived structures, Romantic melodies, and emphasizes complex imitative counterpoint. The symphony has four movements: "Introduction: Andante - Adagio"; "Allegro energico - molto moderato"; "Adagio"; "Allegro moderato ma agiato." Like Beethoven and Brahms, Gál makes extensive use of cell variation. There are a lot of new cells per movement (usually five or six) as well as variations of ideas in previous movements. At the micro level, I had to write things down, just to keep them straight. However, the overall architecture is very simple. A listener has a pretty exact idea of where he currently lies within a movement, according to the time-tested Classical Symphony Metro Map. The symphonic rhetoric is also quite straightforward. We go from something like an organ prelude, to a scherzo, to consolation, to True Incarnation.

We begin with a motto theme -- three notes rising from the third to the fifth to the tonic (mi-sol-do). In one guise or another, it shows up in every movement. In the first, it provides the main point of imitation for a prelude in motet style. Three other themes have significance in later movements: a falling semitone followed by a dropping third or fourth; a pitch repeated three times before rising a third; a lyrical contrast (a "second subject") that takes both diatonic and chromatic shapes. The "falling semitone" in particular gets a workout. The "repeated-pitch" seems inspired by Brucknerian Ur-themes. The scherzo energizes the motto, while the first-movement lyrical bit puts in an appearance, but speeded-up.

At this point, I consider it worth talking about the emotional atmosphere of the symphony, vis-à-vis Gál's life from the late Thirties through the first part of the War. Honegger, for example, howls over the Nazi Occupation of France in his wartime Second Symphony. Several major composers suffer creative silence from the trauma of the War. Gál certainly earned the right to shake his fist and scream. However, the music sings with an Apollonian psychic balance. The scherzo would have given Gál the opportunity to paint his own Last Judgment. Instead, it dances like a Mahler Ländler. Likewise, the slow third movement might have wept, wailed, and gnashed its teeth. Instead, as revealed in one of the composer's letters, Gál explicitly aimed for consolation, even though emotions intensify as the movement goes on. Notably, there is an "oriental" theme -- a bit like Borodin -- that may refer to the Holocaust victims. Again, the main theme varies the motto, and later the "falling semitone" theme gets a workout.

I find the finale the most interesting movement of the lot, in that it comes across as a combo giant sonata and one-movement symphony, with mini versions of an allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. The previous movement represents the symphony's emotional apex, but what follows seems more than just loosening the pressure valves. It's as if in the wake of what has happened so far, the composer feels the need to recreate his symphonic universe, to reorder his philosophical priorities. The motto theme gets reduced to a nervous ostinato, over which runs a new main theme. A pastoral skipping tune on the oboe heralds the scherzino. The lyrical idea from the first movement comes in and combines with a slower version of the scherzino for a brief respite of beautiful melody. Eventually, a gigue takes over, followed by a culminating chorale. Here Gál pitches a curve, since the chorale theme comes not from the motto, but from the Brucknerian Ur-theme all the way back in the first movement. The symphony ends in serenity.

Zehetmair's account of the Schubert bowled me over. I've heard some classic recordings of this work: Dohnányi, Szell, Kleiber, Kubelik, Walter, Fischer, and others. Zehetmair stands with the very best, although singular in his interpretation. So many of these great readings look on the symphony strictly as a grand monument and Schubert as a Beethoven disciple. Of course, it's those things, too, but such a view tends to ignore what Schubert brings to the table all on his own. I've mentioned a new kind of symphonic singing, stemming from the song-length themes and from melodic sources that have little to do with 18th-century opera. Second, one senses -- not a sentimental naïveté (Schubert as the brainless bird again) -- but a positive innocence, by which I think I mean a lack of obsessing over an inevitable goal. Gál writes about Beethoven and Schubert in terms of Schopenhauer: will vs. imagination. Beethoven, of course is the will -- the relentless drive to follow cause to effect, represented by tight motific development. Schubert shows you that you needn't obsess to achieve. You can arrive at your destination by a more scenic route, and the so-called tangents can deepen the experience. Even Walter, for example -- and I could single out many other great interpreters -- tends to overlook the many intimate points of relaxation in Schubert's Ninth, favoring the driving parts. Zehetmair, without loss of forward movement, seems to me to best capture what I think of as The Real Schubert, the poet of direct, communicative lyricism. He overinflates nothing, without giving you the feeling that he short-changes a masterpiece. Rather than orate to the multitudes, he talks to you alone from a near-by chair.

The orchestra's line -- the feeling of the connectedness of notes, the sense of always moving forward, and the lights and shadows, the louds and softs, the shaping of a climax within a phrase -- is superb, indeed what I'd expect from a violinist of Zehetmair's caliber. The Northern Sinfonia's rhythm is keen enough to slice through a sheet of paper in midair, which carries over to preternaturally clear, Cleveland-Orchestra-level ensemble and textures. In short, you will find no better technical performance of either the Gál, which shows the same virtues, or this score. The interpretation, as I say, belongs to Zehetmair alone, and I admit the possibility that not everyone will think this their cuppa.

Avie has provided a beautiful sound in keeping with Zehetmair's readings. I hear inner parts and subtleties of orchestration in the Schubert previously hidden from me. For me, a classic recording.


S.G.S. (June 2012)