Music: The new Schubert: big, bad and beautiful

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With eight and a half symphonies, seven Mass settings, an oratorio and enough operas to know better (because they never worked), Schubert was not the miniaturist music history has sometimes claimed; and as the celebrations for his bicentenary roll on through 1997 we will doubtless be reminded of the fact. But for the birthday itself, which fell last weekend, the British focus was a marathon Schubert Bicentenary Concert at the Wigmore Hall: a night of songs, duets and household music of the kind that filled those semi-private Viennese At Homes where so many Schubert scores received their only platform in his lifetime.

The host was pianist Andras Schiff - who must have a bed backstage at the Wigmore, because he's also playing a complete series of Schubert sonatas there at the moment. His affection for the composer was obvious from the way he talked to his audience about "our" Schubert, with the implication of some Viennese diminutive - "our little Schubert" - in the tone. But then, of all composers, Schubert does inspire affection, not just because his music has a special beauty but because it gives unique voice to the vulnerability of being human.

Schubert's image-bank of lonely wanderers and lost love may have been the stock-in-trade of German Romanticism, but the way his music used that imagery surpassed convention, by grappling with dark truths that haunt every conscience. And the darkness Schubert decanted from his life into his work comes into ever-closer focus with the advancing scrutiny of scholarship. The old children's-book idea of picturesquely tortured genius fuelled by evenings of good cheer has been reconstructed by recent biographers into that of a difficult, depressive drunkard with keen sexual appetites which his contemporaries called "depraved". And no doubt this is more realistic. Schubert did, after all, die from syphilis.

But with such a prodigious output (including 600 songs) in such a short life (he died aged only 31), it's hard to know how Schubert would have found time for depravity. There was certainly no time during the Wigmore Schubertiad, which lasted six hours - 6pm to midnight - with a dense turnover of music and artists in the gala manner of angels dancing on a pin. The advertised angel-in-chief, Cecilia Bartoli, failed to show. But there were plenty of others, like the tenor Christoph Pregardien whose thin tone and confined vibrato left his pitch exposed but gave a sensitive refinement to his singing, and Thomas Quasthoff, whose "Erlkonig" was more striking for its elegance than for its terror: a swift ride over smooth ground that left me wishing he could probe the emotional possibilities of a song as completely as he clothes it with beauty.

Another soloist was Angela Kirchschlager, the young Austrian mezzo- about-town whose stylish vocal maturity belies her youth: cool rather than caressing, and a touch disdainful in "Die Junge Nonne" with tendencies to hard tone, but still special.

For all the singers the accompanist was Schiff himself: immaculately understated, never playing to the gallery, and a model of support. We didn't get a lot from him in terms of solo music but there were duets with Bruno Canino, and he joined the BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury for a selection of those extended part-songs which supposedly exemplify the camaraderie of the Bildung circle but are open to other readings. The D920 Standchen that closed the evening is a notable example: the words contemplate nocturnal invasion of the beloved's bedroom not by "me", singular, but by "us", plural. Only the decor-um of the setting kills the sense of eavesdropping on a Biedermeier gang-bang.

Decorous in the best sense was a commendable student staging of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, on last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Most of the Elisirs I see I'd like to pour down a convenient drain; but this was clean, engaging, and charmingly directed by an undergrad- uate, John Fulljames, with accomplished young-professional leads in Niall Morris (the star Nemorino of ETO's last Elisir) and Jeni Bern (a winning, not too pert Adina).

Back in London, the LSO unrolled more of its Brahms Centenary series at the Barbican, with Colin Davis more than ever the ruminative elder- statesman in charge, chewing his pipe through what in any other hands would have been lethargic tempi. That he gets away with it, and we stay awake, is a mark of how well-considered these performances are in their overall planning. Speeds, like dynamics, are relative; good conductors can create the illusion of movement by sheer contrast; and Davis is a very good conductor, who kept Sunday night's Second Piano Concerto (soloist Gerhard Oppitz) gloriously alive, however slow it went according to the metronome. He also got a fine, rich string sound, more patrician than it ever was under his predecessor Michael Tilson Thomas.

But then, Tilson Thomas's music-making has other qualities, and they reside, now, back in America where he leads a literally coast-to-coast existence between the San Francisco Symphony and the Miami-based New World Symphony Orchestras. Last week I paid a flying visit to Miami to see the New World in action, and I haven't quite recovered: it was too impressive not to be distressing.

The New World is a training orchestra for instrumentalists aged between 21 and 30, at the "what-now?" stage of their careers between music college and full-time professional work. In intention it's the American equivalent of our own Young Musicians' Symphony. But there comparisons end. The NWS has money, starting with an endowment of some $30m from one of the world's richest men, Miami shipping magnate Ted Arison. It also has its own concert hall (an 800-seat Art Deco palace on Miami Beach), and two hotels which have been converted into residences for the players, nestling among swimming pools and palm trees.

This is no bad deal. Even without the pools and palms it means that the NWS can function as a permanent ensemble - not just something that convenes for a fortnight, gives a concert, then disbands until the next one. It also means that the NWS can offer its players an approximation of ongoing college life, with high-level coaching and proper practice facilities. When big stars fly in for concerto dates with the orchestra - as they often do - they tend to stick around and give some teaching. There are worse places to stick around. One of my more memorable experiences with the NWS was watching a class, run by a TV anchorwoman, on recital presentation. As someone who thinks most musicians are best advised not to speak to their audiences, I had mixed feelings about it, but I can see the point. At least, in Florida.

NWS was Tilson Thomas's idea, begun in 1987. That it settled at Miami Beach, where audiences arrive either on Zimmer frames or roller blades, might seem a trifle frivolous, but its presence seems to meet a need. In a bizarre way, the Beach has taken NWS to heart as its local link to high culture; and Tilson Thomas responds with projects that make high culture easy to absorb, like the Jazz in the Classics festival he was running last week.

A heady cocktail of Stravinsky, Milhaud, Bernstein and Gershwin that took in symphonic concerts and solo recitals - with Tilson Thomas playing Rhapsody in Blue and everything relayed on big screen to the streets outside the theatre - it was punchy, and reached large numbers of unlikely people. It was also risky, in that Tilson Thomas asked along the Woody Herman band: true jazzmen made for an invidious comparison. But if the New World didn't swing so fiercely, it was still outstanding: as "professional" as almost any orchestra I know, and more dynamic. Pretty galling really.

Michael Tilson Thomas returns to the London Symphony Orchestra for a Debussy series at the Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891) from 20 Feb.

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