In the public mind, Schubert’s most popular works are to be found in his piano sonatas, his chamber music and his lieder.
What is often forgotten is Schubert’s contribution to symphonic repertoire (bar the Unfinished Symphony).
Schubert’s introduction to orchestral writing came early and was largely due to opportunity and circumstance. As a young man, Schubert attended a Viennese boarding school, which boasted an orchestra. Every evening the interns were able to listen to and perform orchestral works. Mozart and Haydn were often on the menu. It wasn’t long before Schubert was able to compose his first symphony which was performed at this establishment in 1813.
These early beginnings in the genre have caused some influential conductors to dismiss Schubert’s early symphonies as no more than a school project. In them they hear Haydn’s and Mozart’s oeuvres and not much else.
In recent years, the tide has turned and more conductors are starting to look at Schubert’s symphonies with a fresh eye. One of them is French conductor, Christophe Rousset, who was invited by the Châtelet Theatre to conduct Schubert’s entire symphonic output with his orchestra Les Talens Lyriques. The concert series entitled Intégrale des Symphonies de Franz Schubert was to take place over three evenings.
On opening night there was much excitement in the air. It was an eagerly awaited event by the musical fraternity, music students abounded and some came prepared with several scores draped over their lap.
The Talens Lyriques took to the stage – woodwind, brass and percussion disappeared behind a formidable string section. Christophe Rousset announced the order of play : no 6, no 2 and no 4.
Symphony no 6 is full of Vienna and the dance, interspersed with blasts of militaristic brass and galloping horses. The Scherzo Presto was a highly rhythmic jaunty ride through the Viennese countryside. Lots of repeats and slight alterations on a theme. The Allegro Moderato which followed, also had that circular quality. I was reminded of a wind up doll destined to turn round and round on its circular base. I can see why some may find the Sixth Symphony maddening, but not I. Rousset very deftly shaped the 6th, bringing out the highly rhythmic quality to mesmeric effect. In the programme notes, Rousset had already mentioned the pleasure he took in Schubert’s ruminations. Schubert is remarkably patient, revels in repetition, and then shifts gear. Rousset took great pleasure in making the audience wait – delighting in Schubert’s “longueurs”.
The Symphony No 2 that followed was an unsettled affair. The Largo composed of impatient rapid strings interspersed with a marvellous languorous melody. Absolutely gorgeous.
Those who criticise Schubert for his lack of inventiveness might be judging Schubert from a Romantic perspective Rousset suggests. For many years Rousset made the baroque his calling card with the Talens Lyriques. He explains: “We have come from Rameau, Bach and Haendel, and are fascinated and moved by the newness of Schubert after Haydn and Mozart”.
And so to the Symphony no 4. Written in 1816 and dubbed the “Tragic” symphony by Schubert. The 4th was one of two symphonies that Schubert wrote in the minor. The violins plead; the woodwinds are grave in the Adagio but the low mood is never allowed to linger. We have poignancy and pathos in the Andante too, but high energy and joy disperse the darkness. And it is this aspect of Schubert that Rousset highlighted so well in this wonderfully invigorating performance of Schubert’s early symphonies.
At my time of writing, one evening remains – Tuesday 31st January, for the Symphony no 5 and no 9.
Les Talens Lyriques perform a Handel programme this Sunday 5th February at the Wigmore Hall. Start 7.30pm