Concert Note:
In Which Gianandrea Noseda Wakes Me Up to Schubert
9 August 2019

I have always known Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Which is to say that it is one of the few things that I knew early in life and have known ever since. I was thirteen or fourteen when the LP — Bruno Walter leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (an LA pickup group that, thanks to the movies, was full of gifted musicians) — arrived in a cardboard envelope from the record club. I didn’t know anything about it, but I liked it right away, and, as I didn’t own a lot of LPs but was always playing something, I got to know it pretty well pretty quickly. And, since I didn’t know very much music, I knew it uncritically, almost in the way that everybody knows a current pop song.

Oddly, that’s how it stayed. I seem never to have given the Ninth any critical attention. I never bought a score so that I could follow it. I wasn’t moved to ask (as I was with Mozart), how does he do that? It already gave me enough pleasure, as indeed did Schubert’s music generally.  I did regard Schubert as especially “Austrian” — lyric, genial, rustic but Alpine, plugged into the magic mountain from which the inspiration for European music poured south into Italy and north into Bohemia and Germany, and maybe somewhat folkish and naive. I could well imagine that Mahler longed for Schubert’s untroubled access to this source of beauty. But I seemed to think, quite uncharacteristically for me, that everything significant about Schubert was audible on the surface. It is possible — I am forced to admit this — that I regarded Schubert as a primitive.

These thoughts are all very preliminary. They’ve been bubbling up only during the past week, as I’ve been struggling to pin down what it was about Gianandrea Noseda’s reading of the Ninth Symphony that shattered my old view of Schubert forever. Aside from an overall freshness of approach, it seems to have come down to the way in which three phrases were linked together, fixed in my mind, as I sat and watched the orchestra — more specifically, the concertmaster and a flautist who resembled (at the distance of my seat) Saoirse Ronan. When the score arrived a few days after the concert, I was able to locate Bar 97 of the Scherzo as the starting point. Here, the violins pick up a lyrical phrase that has been held tossing upon the flutes by the clarinets and bassoons. After repeating the phrase twice, the violins make an insistent descent in the trumping rhythm of the Scherzo’s opening — a contrast that no dancer could have articulated better than the concertmaster’s shoulders. This is followed by a passage in which neither the strings nor the winds take the lead. While the strings skip up and down the scale, with a kind of cheerful uneasiness, the winds toot fragments of the opening theme, and what Noseda did was to make it all sound like a concerted alarm (even the lyrical phrase), with the winds chattering like agitated birds, threatening to play out of order. The winds never did play out of order, of course, but I was very worried that they might, worried in the way that Mahler is worrying, when his sunny blue skies cloud over suddenly. It was very exciting, and each time this complex of phrases was repeated, it got more exciting still.

Also very alarming was the strife — it sounded too manmade to be dismissed as a “storm” — that bursts out in Bar 232 of the Andante con moto. The brass blared like so many sirens, making the emergency racket that surrounds a burning house. This sounded so much like the wildest Mahler that I couldn’t believe that it was Schubert, and yet, as I say, I had known the music all my life. 

I often struggle to express what it is that makes the performance of familiar music great. Having read the obituary of Nederlander cellist Anner Bijlsma in today’s Times, I may stop talking about “great” and say “authentic” instead. 

Mr. Bylsma disliked hearing period instruments described as “authentic.” In a 1996 interview in Gramophone, he recalled being asked what is “authentic” in music. The answer, he said, comes clear “when you hear someone play a piece that you know extremely well and it suddenly appears still more beautiful than it was.”

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