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,
-- 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
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
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
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
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
folk-like in their structure and without words -- indeed, mini-cycles
of such songs. With Beethoven, you sense a constant compression, which
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
the Schubert Ninth's "heavenly lengths." I think he meant this
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
deepen the experience. Even Walter, for example -- and I could single
out many other great interpreters -- tends to overlook the many intimate
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.
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
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
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)