CLASSICAL MUSIC: Schubert: Philharmonia / Dohnanyi; Gidon Kremer & friends RFH; Barbican
Wednesday 12 March 1997
Nor does there seem to be any shortage of composers willing to pay homage to Schubert. Last Wednesday's Philharmonia concert included Luciano Berio's Rendering, based on sketches for a symphony Schubert wrote in his last three weeks on this earth. Then on Friday, violinist Gidon Kremer and friends performed the first of series of Schubert tributes, by the American composer John Harbison: November 19, 1828, the date of Schubert's cruelly untimely death (he was only 31).
The idea behind Rendering is intriguing. It follows, says Berio, "the guidelines of the modern restoration of wall paintings, aiming at restoring the original brightness... without wishing to conceal the damage wrought by the centuries, so that the picture as a whole may retain some blank spaces (as for example in the case of Giotto in Assisi)". But the comparison is strained. In the Giotto, the remaining fragments retain their original proportional relationship to one another. In Rendering, Berio simply gives the surviving Schubert sketches with a filling of his own - there's no attempt to render the proportions of the projected symphony, just bits of Schubert patched with bits of Berio. Some of Berio's filling is rather beautiful in a strange, dreamlike way (with hints of Schubert floating in and out), but it certainly isn't "blank space". The effect is more like Giotto completed by Jackson Pollock.
Well, if it works, what's the problem? In this case, I don't think it does. The effect is schizoid. The two sound-worlds remain, in spirit, utterly distinct, throwing little, if any light on each other. It's a long way from the brilliant Mahler-palimpsest of Berio's Sinfonia, and, sadly, far less vital. It may be that the performance was partly to blame. The Philharmonia makes a wonderful sound for conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, with beautiful internal balance (a Dohnanyi speciality), but energy levels were low almost throughout this concert. Easily the highlight was the singing of Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard (a late and very satisfactory substitute for Olaf Bar) in the seven orchestrated Schubert songs - a very different experience from a conventional voice / piano Lieder-recital, but one which Hagegard appeared to relish.
John Harbison is a much more conservative voice than Berio. Part of November 19, 1828 could have been written by a contemporary of Milhaud or Prokofiev. On paper, Harbison's programme ("Schubert crosses into the next world" etc) looked unpromising. But the third movement, in which a Schubert Rondo fragment is wittily developed and dislocated, and the finale - two contrasting fugues on a theme based on Schubert's name - held the attention strongly enough. Gidon Kremer, with violist Veronika Hagen and cellist Clemens Hagen, then gave an unusually powerful performance of Alfred Schnittke's typically histrionic String Trio (a tribute to Alban Berg rather than to Schubert). But the climax of the evening was a glorious performance of Schubert's own "Trout Quintet", with Oleg Maisenberg (piano) and Alois Posch (double bass); this was simply great chamber playing. The encore (Astor Piazzola?) was fun too - though it would have been nicer to go straight home with Schubert still ringing in the ears. Stephen Johnson
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