Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Schubertiade at the Symphony

Last week there was a strange all-Schubert concert at the San Francisco Symphony that consisted of an overture to both a failed play and opera, a piano quintet, and finally a string quartet rewritten by Gustav Mahler for a large string orchestra.

The overture was to an unproduced opera called Alfonso und Estrella and then reused as the overture to a failed play, Rosamunde. In the amusing program notes by James Keller, he writes, "Schubert displayed an unerring talent for selecting librettos that were deficient in either plot or literary style, and often in both." The six-minute piece for full orchestra came and went under Michael Tilson Thomas' direction, and then everybody walked off the stage.

Entering after them were (left to right above) concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, violin; Peter Wyrick, cello; guest artist Juho Pojhonen, piano, looking about 14 years old; Scott Pingel, bass; and Jonathan Vinocour, viola. They played the forty-minute Trout Quintet, written by Schubert for friends to play at home together. This is lively, young people's music, and it was played that way by just about everyone in the quintet in a very enjoyable performance.

The only problem is that Davies Hall is a 3,000 seat barn, not a living room, so much of the individual sounds were lost as they tried to fill the auditorium. It was still fun to hear the performance, and the audience, which seemed to be filled with Goldstar newbies, applauded between every one of the movements on Saturday night. There's a false ending in the final Allegretto which was also the occasion for misplaced applause, which stopped when the musicians started laughing with each other as they continued to the end.

Schubert died in 1828 at the age of 31, either from typhoid fever, tertiary syphilis, or mercury poisoning trying to treat the latter condition. Much of his work wasn't performed publicly until after his death, including the 1824 string quartet, nicknamed Death and the Maiden. Gustav Mahler, who liked to tinker with the scores of everyone from Mozart to Beethoven when he was a conductor, "upscaled" the string quartet into a symphonic piece for string orchestra in 1894. Apparently the entire reorchestration wasn't played until 1984, so the performance felt like something of a modern novelty.

I prefer the original string quartet version, partly because it's grittier, but was glad to be listening to the pumped up version in Davies Hall. The second movement Andante was exquisite, and the entire performance was interesting.

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