Friday, 6 April 2012

Great stuff!

For the sake of completeness - and for the sheer fun of it - it's time to round off my irregular series of posts on the symphonies of Franz Schubert with one on the Symphony No.9 in C major, known (for good reason) as The Great.

I had a CD of Schubert 9 about twenty years ago and listened to it several times, finding myself disappointed at what a pedestrian piece it was. Only later, after hearing other performances, did I realise that it wasn't Schubert's Great C major Symphony that was the problem; it was the performance on my CD that was pedestrian. Dull performances can kill a work stone dead, which is why you should always seek out alternative perspectives if an initially unfavourable impression is given by a work from a great composer. I've since heard some stunning performances of the Great and it has become a firm favourite.

The symphony's first movement opens to the magical, romantic sound of horns. A pair of them, unaccompanied and in unison, sing the glorious theme of the magnificent introduction. The theme then journeys on in various instrumental colours and against various accompaniments, is developed delightfully, climaxes in such passages as that which alternates a full string unison (backed by timpani) with a chorus of winds, then crescendos into the main Allegro. This section has a strongly rhythmic main subject (based on a dotted crotchet followed by a quaver) and is one huge dance. Its polka-like second subject, begun by woodwinds, is developed deliciously and then, amidst its genial chatter, trombones enter majestically with a phrase from the introductory theme, sung this time against the persisting dance rhythms. The development section, as anyone who knows Schubert would expect, modulates widely and it too is crowned by the trombones again before a subtle and poetic transition to the straightforward recapitulation. The coda, as you might also expect, dances exultantly before culminating in a deeply satisfying recall of the introductory theme. 

The second movement Andante alternates march-like and song-like sections and strolls along to the delight of all. The march has a fascinatingly subtle bass line and a tune (on oboe) you might well soon find yourself humming along to. More assertive episodes intervene, restoring the work's dance instincts. A short but utterly magical transition carries us to the song-like section. This has a heart-easing also-hummable theme which is allotted space to breathe and appears like beauty itself in the also-magical re-transition back to the main theme. A variety of treatment ensures the 'new' main section gives fresh joy and pumps in additional adrenalin to provoke a crisis and a moment of consequent sadness before the song, newly enriched, returns.

The world of Anton Bruckner awaits in the huge and glorious Scherzo. Its opening theme has great vigour and something of the character of Beethoven. It stands in contrast to a lyrically-dancing second theme. The section (like the Trio) is in sonata form. The Trio section is no light relief, despite having the lilting, tuneful appeal of a Schubert song, and alongside its smiles you will also hear frowns. Its weight is no small miracle. 

The legendary energy of the great Finale, sustained through many minutes, is no myth. Also in sonata form, it launches itself with a mighty upbeat then whirls off (to use a popular image) like a planetary giant, singing even in passage work before landing at the tuneful second subject, played by the clarinets to a march rhythm. The exposition ends excitingly and a lengthy but heavenly development sections follows, containing much magic and vast imagination. This eventually ebbs but girds itself up again for the recapitulation. The coda, based almost entirely on the second subject, is a sweepingly triumphant conclusion to what - in a great performance - is plainly one of the greatest of great symphonies. 

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