Saturday, 24 March 2012

Schubert: Counting to six

BBC Radio 3's eight day celebration of Schubert is now under way and, with 24 hours already gone, a blissful experience it's proving to be. Graham Johnson is introducing a selection of familiar and unfamiliar songs as I begin typing. A few hours ago, Lord Winston played us the Second Symphony (among many other treats) and hopefully this will have pricked up a few ears. Schubert wrote seven complete symphonies, of which the Ninth is - along with a certain unfinished symphony - the greatest. What of the others, numbered 1-6? Are they merely juvenalia, not worth a listen? Very far from it.  

The First Symphony in D major is the one we hear least often. It's a youthful symphony (aren't they all?), composed when Franz was just 16, but it's a piece I'm fond of and strikes a high standard throughout. Its first movement begins with Classical Era pomp and then an expectant hush. There's a Mozartian quality to the main section with its enthusiastic-sounding main subject and its dancing second subject, plus some biceps-building pumping of thematic fragments. The latter dominates the punchy development section, though there's also space for a tremolo-cloaked take on the second subject. An expectant mood then gathers again on woodwinds and the pompous-sounding slow introduction makes its return followed by the recapitulation proper. I find the whole movement an invigorating listen. The Andante is somewhat less appealing. Its main theme is attractive enough, with its gently dancing rhythms; however, most of the remaining material is rather pedestrian and the music has a tendency to get itself mired in short but banal sequences. The Minuet is consistently better. It has a vigorous charm and a Haydn-like mien. I'm very taken by it. Schubert's woodwind writing here is particularly pleasing and the timpani are put to good use too. The 'rustic' Trio section is just as good with its innocent tunefulness and pastoral-shaded woodwinds. The Finale returns to Mozart and does so with some aplomb. There's an elegant swagger to it and a plethora of pleasing themes - even if none are pulled from the top drawer. 

The Second Symphony in B flat major followed a year or so later and is hardly heard any more often. It's my least favourite Schubert symphony but, as I like all his symphonies, that's not as harsh a statement as it sounds and the symphony has much to offer throughout its not inconsiderable length. After a short but colourful slow introduction, the main Allegro vivace springs from the traps with a fast-moving theme full of fleet-footed quavers. There's then a contrasting, sweet-sounding second subject with attractive attendant woodwind twitters. This movement's exposition also includes a fiery pre-development of the main theme, though the development proper is more interesting. It's not a great movement, but it's a still a good one. The slow movement is a theme and variations on a Haydn-like tune of some charm, The variations are easy-going and fall easily on the ear. The symphony really hits the heights with its Minuet, which is (despite its marking) a scherzo! It's in C minor, the key most associated with Beethoven, and Beethoven feels quite close by here. The main section has considerable strength in its sinews. Hadyn's influence is felt in the charmingly rustic-sounding Trio. The Finale is fine as well and takes the shape of a rondo that also follows sonata form. It has a lively horseback-riding main theme powered by an irresistible rhythm which comes into its own in a genuinely exciting development section. Everything in this movement works, and works well, so I'd place it as the second best part of the symphony - just behind the Minuet. 

If you liked these first two symphonies, just wait until you try out their successor - the Third Symphony in D major from 1815. Audiences respond well to it whenever they get the chance to hear it, understandably as it's a gem. Mozart's influence is back in force and the symphony's spirit is one of brightness and fun. Its slow introduction manages to be both grand and charming and the main themes of the Allegro are cheerful. Their good cheer is balanced by some punchy transition passages, with their exciting use of crescendos. The following Allegretto's main theme may strike many listeners as having something of Haydn about it, though the theme isn't perhaps of great shakes in itself but compensates us with the delightful touches of orchestral colour added to its later phrases. The movement's lively central section has a folk-dance-like quality to it and is a charmer. There's another scherzo-like Minuet to follow - a muscular affair that should get your juices flowing - allied to a Trio section that always makes me smile. The Finale starts off rather like a Rossini tarantella and bustles along like a comic scene from an opera thereafter. It's a winning movement, full of exciting action. 

Even with the Fourth Symphony in C minor of 1816 (Schubert's first minor key symphony), we are still very much in the world of Haydn and Mozart, with a little Beethoven thrown in for good measure. The symphony's nickname is 'The Tragic' and it inhabits the world of 'storm and stress' - as many an 18th century minor key symphony had done before. The fine slow introduction certainly strikes a tragic pose. It filters a three-note figure through a fine web of harmony and changing orchestral textures. So good is this slow introduction that it rather outclasses the main Allegro part of the opening movement. In this fast section the tragic mood gives way to an heroic one and we find decent themes and a lot of thrusting ongoing development - and not just in the section usually given that name. The Andante's main theme is Mozart-like but there's a lilt to it that could only have come from Schubert's own time. Soon Franz carries it into his own world and lets it sing in full-throated fashion. This is all excellent stuff. The secondary material is dramatic, quasi-operatic even. The Minuet is also excellent with its interesting main theme and charming play of orchestral colours. If the main section is vibrant then the sweet dance of the Trio section takes us straight into an elegant Viennese room. The sonata-form Finale is an exciting tour-de-force of thematic inventiveness and symphonic logic. My favourite passages are the exposition codetta's thrilling sequence (which is artfully and dramatically revisited during the development section) and the magical lead-back into recapitulation. 

Surely everybody's favourite early Schubert symphony (it's certainly mine) is the Fifth Symphony in B flat major. This is a pure Classical symphony from the same year as the Tragic, influenced by no one later than Haydn and, above all, Mozart. It always sounds so fresh and is a masterpiece by any reckoning. The first movement opens with woodwinds chords and a tripping violin figure worthy of Mendelssohn. Then comes the famous tune - the happy main theme - and its magical woodwind 'counterpoint' second time round. Exciting linking material and a Classically lyrical second subject lead to an enchanting development section, where the work's very opening is reworked in a very special way. If the first movement is Mozart reborn, then the following Andante returns to Haydn and unfolds in a highly lyrical fashion, presenting a pair of shapely melodies. The movement's magic moment (for me) comes when Schubert chooses to move between these themes by means of a remarkable modulation - as simple as it is surprising. The superb Minuet is another scherzo and as strong in sinew as its counterpart in the Second Symphony. It's also in a minor key. The major-key Trio in contrast is a lamb-like rustic-style slow dance with a captivating, simple-seeming tune. The Finale is a genial tour-de-force of thematic inventiveness and symphonic logic (to coin a phrase!) and crams a heck of a lot of action into its fairly short duration. It's a fabulous movement to close a fabulous symphony.

And what of the last of these early symphonies, the light and frothy Sixth Symphony in C major? All the critics shout 'Rossini' about this symphony, and that influence certainly isn't hard to hear. The adorable main theme of the first movement (after the slow introduction) certainly sounds as if Rossini could have written it. The lurching second subject (with its offbeat accents) is just as likeable. Its tipsy character suits such a jolly movement. Even the development section eschews drama for gentle chatter. The slow introduction is the only part of the movement that doesn't smile. The Andante has a simple main subject with shades of Haydn (again) about it - a tune you might find yourself whistling along with after a while. The livelier contrasting section, especially in its chirpiest incarnation, is surely also worth a smile. The scherzo this time is actually marked 'Scherzo' and has something of Beethoven about it. It's an engaging section (the best in the symphony), though I have to say I find its Trio section less interesting. The Finale sounds like a medley of accompanied tunes and feels much more like an overture rather than a Classical symphonic finale. The scampering first theme is its finest feature. The Sixth Symphony is not Schubert at his finest, but it's got bags of personality and gives me a lot of pleasure.

Happy listening! (It's Schubert after all!)

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