By Robert D. Thomas
Southern California News Group
In his nine years as Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel has led several symphony cycles. The most famous was his “Mahler Project” in 2012, when Dudamel conducted the L.A. Phil and his Simón Bólivar Symphony Orchestra in all nine symphonies by Gustav Mahler (plus assorted other works). During his tenure, Dudamel has also led cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies.
However, when Dudamel programmed the entire symphonic output of Franz Schubert for this season, many were left scratching their collective heads. How many Schubert symphonies have you heard before this month? Two, of course — Nos. 8 and 9. No. 5, perhaps. Beyond that? In her preconcert lecture this afternoon, Dr. Lorraine Byrne Bodley, one of the world’s foremost Schubert experts, made a point of saying how impressed she was that Dudamel and the Phil would program all eight Schubert symphonies in a two-week stretch. “Some of the early works, in particular,” she noted, “are almost never played.”
The cycle concluded this afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the two most famous Schubert symphonies: No. 8 (“Unfinished”) and No. 9 (“The Great C-Major”). What made the day special was not just the orchestra’s superb playing nor Dudamel’s sensitive conducting. Instead, it was the fact that those who have been in attendance for the first three programs over a two-week period got to hear these last two within the context of what had come before.
In the space of just 11 years, beginning in 1813 when Schubert was age 16, he grew from teenage prodigy to the harbinger of the Romantic era to come, in particular the music of Brahms, Schumann and, yes, even Gustav Mahler whose song cycles Dudamel programmed in between each pair of Schubert’s works. Next season Dudamel tackles Robert Schmann’s symphonies, plus the composer’s concertos and a rarely performed stage work. It’s a fitting follow up to this cycle.
The gap between 1818, when Schubert completed his sixth symphony, and 1822, when No. 8 was “finished” was curiously wide, yet the maturity, complexity and brilliance of No. 8 stands worlds apart from his first six efforts (a seventh symphony was begun, but apparently never completed).
Yet, as the Phil’s cycle showed us, the eighth was, indeed, an outgrowth of his earlier works, albeit richer than the first six. The orchestral scoring for each symphony grew gradually and for the eighth symphony he added three trombones, which made for greater sonority. Moreover, in the Phil’s performances Principal Timpanist Joseph Periera eschewed the bright kettledrums he had used for the early symphonies in favor of the now-standard timpani used in the Mahler songs.
The eighth continues Schubert’s penchant of playing the winds against the strings. Dudamel — conducting without a score as he has done for all the symphonies — began the proceedings with a brisk tempo but relaxed as the measures spun out and highlighted that nearly constant dialogue between winds and strings. He received elegant playing from Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan and the entire cello section in the two principal themes. The second movement, particularly the horns, had a sonorous, rich feeling with Dudamel quietly urging the work forward to its ambiguous end.
Much continues to be made as to why Schubert left this work unfinished — if, indeed, he did. There are piano sketches of a third movement and many scholars believe that the intra-act music of the opera Rosamunde may have been originally intended as a fourth movement for this symphony. Some believe that Schubert simply laid the work aside to continue other compositions. Others postulate that his battle with the effects of syphilis caused him to lay aside the 8th.
Yet every time I hear a performance as loving and lovely as we heard today, I remain tantalized by the thought that for Schubert the work was finished. He must have realized how great piece it was, although it’s inconceivable that he could have dreamed that 100 years after its composition it would be his most famous work.
As was the case on Thursday and Friday, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was the soloist today, this time in four of Mahler’s songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. As was the case Thursday night she sang with a luxurious tone and she was more animated and even playful in the first song than had been the case Thursday. As has been the case with all four song cycles, the last movement — this time with limpid oboe and trumpet solos — held the audience spellbound.
Symphony No. 9, which was completed in 1826, three years after the eighth, was yet another quantum leap forward in Schubert’s symphonic style. Schubert’s first six symphonies, in large measure, look backwards to his great idols: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. His ninth, as I wrote earlier, looks forward, although Jeffrey Kahane made an impressive case last night for looking backwards, as well, when he led the Symphony No. 9 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK).
Partly due to the wonderful resonance of Disney Hall, the almost inaudible opening measures set the bar high for this superb performance. The Phil produced a deep luxuriant tone throughout the opening movement, aided immeasurably by burnished playing from horn player Amy Jo Rhine.
The second movement featured elegant solo work from Associate Principal Oboe Marion Arthur Kuszyk and the entire cello section.
The third movement was the one section in the entire cycle when Dudamel indulged his penchant for dancing on the podium, although as I have often noted he never makes a sway, swoop or gesture that doesn’t serve the music.
The final movement was taken at a majestic tempo. Dudamel built the performance inexorably to a grand conclusion that brought forth a fully justified standing ovation. He seemed particularly pleased with the playing today but really the smiles were for the entire two-week cycle.
• As if the Schubert cycle wasn’t enough, Dudamel and the Phil conclude their 2016-2017 indoor season with a cycle of the three Bartok piano concertos, with Yuja Wang as soloist.
The concerts this Friday, Saturday and Sunday include the first piano concerto, paired with Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The latter two pieces feature the Los Angeles Master Chorale, soloists and organist Ivet Apkalana. Informatioon: www.laphil.com
The concerts on June 1 and 2 feature Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, while the programs on June 3 and 4 revolve around his Piano Concerto No. 3. Both programs include Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information: www.laphil.com
(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.