Honours in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on April 22 were shared between works by Schubert himself and Fauré.
The concert opened with one of Schubert’s several settings of Goethe’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern from 1821. Schubert’s partsongs, whether unaccompanied, accompanied by piano or, as here, accompanied by richer orchestrations, receive little attention these days, even though they formed a characteristic part of the Viennese musical landscape in the nineteenth century — music of this kind was, for example, a key component of the repertoire of the Wiener Singverein, over which Brahms presided and for which he wrote similar material. Schubert’s partsongs are also the natural outcome of his better-known Lieder, sharing with them aspirations both to drama and musico-poetic insight.
Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, for four tenors, four basses, and a complement of lower strings (two violas, two cellos and bass) got a committed reading from the orchestra and men of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Although instrumentalists and singers were attentive to the details of Schubert’s many moods in this work, I would have preferred sharper characterisation and greater attention to the overall structure of the work. Schubert’s longer works often suffer from a lack of real organic unity and this work, with its many shortish sections, lends itself all too readily to dismemberment into disassociated ‘scenes’; conductor Ben Northey and the forces under his control let Schubert’s scenic construction have its head a little too freely in this performance. The bass singers gave this reading admirable heft and power, leaving the tenors seeming a little lightweight by comparison.
The orchestra gave a performance of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony of 1822 that betrayed signs of deep familiarity, with tight ensemble and controlled conception of gesture. Northey has a real gift for laying out the structure of works like this, with the precise weighting particularly of individual musical gestures leaving the composition easy for audiences to ‘read’. I missed, though, some of the aggressive concentration on the very small particles from which the first movement is made — the relentless attention paid to the melodic movement of a third in particular — which gives this movement some of its black obsessiveness, making it a kind of spiritual kin to the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Northey also seemed unwilling to show the whole palette of force in the orchestral sound; the ‘big’ moments of the first movement, often highly structurally significant, were just big enough but never more than that. In a movement of such tension and obsession, slightly more fatalistic underlining seemed needed. The second movement seemed airily brisk, reasonably far from the transparent serenity with which this movement is normally played and, again, the effect was somewhat flippant — this is E major in resignedly tragic mode, and the tragedy seemed leeched out by the speed.
The program closed with Fauré’s Requiem, revisiting the sombre orchestration of the Schubert partsong at the program’s opening. I’ve always felt slightly uneasy about this work being taken seriously as a concert work. It’s reasonably clear from what survives of Fauré’s thinking about it that it occupied an ambivalent place in his output and was written — at least as far as the baritone solo is concerned — with fairly modest ambitions in mind. Reservations aside, this was a fine performance, particularly from the Chorus. Solo sections in the Agnus Dei and In paradisum were both shaped attentively to the words; the impression of mass — solid at the opening and in Dies irae and Libera me and radiant in the final paragraphs of In paradisum — were finely conceived. The soloists were less satisfactory. Jacqueline Porter gave an appropriately pretty account of Pie Jesu, underlining somewhat Fauré’s modest aspirations for the work as a whole. James Clayton’s two solos were stolid, but somewhat expressionless, even in Libera me, a fact cast into relief by the very full-throated, and ultimately more satisfactory, account of the same material the Chorus gave.
The picture is of soprano Jacqueline Porter.