Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Rendering unto Schubert

Hopefully most people have heard of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (the Eighth), one of the best-loved symphonic works in the repertoire, but there's also what we might call the Barely Begun Symphony (the Tenth). The Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio took the fragmentary sketches of Schubert's Tenth and wove them into a work from 1989 called Rendering. If you like Schubert, please give it a try. You will be delighted!!

Rendering gives us what can be given of the Schubert, but in the gaps Berio provides his own dream-like interludes - washes of threads from myriad other works by Schubert. You'll know when these are beginning, as Berio uses the celesta as a herald. The technique was inspired, I read, by modern restorations of old frescoes - such as those by Giotto (whose paintings grace this post) - that don't seek to disguise the damages of time but concentrate on reviving the vividness of their original colours. The interludes are seamlessly linked to the 'true' Schubert and cast their own spell.

What sort of work was/would have been/is Schubert's Symphony No.10? Well, these are my impressions.

The theme Berio assumes (surely rightly) to be the first movement's opening theme is a fine one, characteristic of the composer when thinking big. There are powerful rhythms and a repetitive three-note figure - ideas open to development, modulation and colouring, as Berio shows. An ambitious work was clearly on the cards, but one with Dvorak-like touches (Dvorak, half a century in the future, was one of Schubert's spiritual grandchildren, so to speak). A transition with a momentary trace of Spain leads to...nowhere. When we pick up 'Schubert' again (after the Berio interlude) we find ourselves near the end of another stormy transition after which a dancing development of the main theme begins. A climax is reached and a delightful theme enters in Schubert's best and most tuneful vein (the second subject, presumably?). It is very song-like. Another exciting transition follows with what sounds like an heroic new theme but is in fact a wonderful variant of the main theme. Further transitional writing then dissolve into...well, we'll never know. We meet up with 'Schubert' next with a chorale-like passage. Reminders of the tuneful 'second subject' lead to a short crisis that passes swiftly and the main subject brings what would clearly have been a much-loved movement to a powerful close.

The sketches for the B minor Andante also reveal extraordinary riches. The third symphony of Mahler's First Symphony is made to feel close by Berio, for this is a funeral march. Over a march rhythm a fine melody and a related counter-melody process, mournfully but beautifully. A noble crescendo and a change to the major shows some of the near Brucknerian scope of Schubert's fragmented vision, as does the subsequent ebbing away. Magical!  We pick the movement up again (after a Berio interlude) as the march is obviously spreading towards heavenly length and a lyrical phrase rises sweetly against Brucknerian figuration - a brief but beautiful pastoral vision. Would we had much more! The next fragment of 'Schubert'  recapitulates the main theme as we first heard it before spreading again...or at least starting to spread again...

The Scherzo/Finale has another great theme, with a swinging, somewhat folk-like, almost Grieg-like character, which 'Schubert' sets dancing contrapuntally. A gentler second theme wanders over a classic jogtrot accompaniment before the main theme's return with an even stronger contrapuntal treatment. The next fragment continues this contrapuntal development with considerable vigour and then switches to lyrical lightness with a trio-like episode of some charm. The Grieg-like theme returns before a boisterous 'folk-dance' erupts and...then...inevitably...ah, well, we had a good run there! There's more 'Schubert' to come though - a fugue on the main subject and a varied reprise with symphonic 'goings-on'. What a movement this would have been! I suspect, given Schubert's previous, that it would have been a long and varied one.

I'm guessing that the Berio interludes, written in the spirit of avant-garde music of our day (or nearly 25 years ago!), have militated against Rendering become a popular classic ('Schubert's Tenth'), just as 'Mahler's Tenth' and 'Elgar's Third' would have suffered if their respective 'realisers' had done what Berio chose to do. Many people just can't take avant-garde music. That's a shame. Berio does Schubert proud throughout and writes very convincingly in his style (and in his own). He gives us some superb music. It deserves far greater fame.

As evidence for the point I was just making, I've heard significantly more broadcasts/performances of another of Berio's recreations of the past - one where he overlays several versions of the same movement by the original composer, yet achieves a thoroughly non-modernist result. It is the colourful, delightful re-working of Boccherini called Ritirata notturna di Madrid. Audiences love it!

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