Great Schubert But Only Modest Mozart

Richard Goode [photo (c) Sasha Gusov]

Richard Goode [photo (c) Sasha Gusov]

Let me begin with a confession. When it comes to Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, called “The Great C Major,” I have never felt it deserved the title. And for those commentators who have effused over the symphony’s “heavenly length,” I have translated that encomium as “endless tedium.”

I am happy to report that Music Director Jahja Ling and the San Diego Symphony’s lucidly detailed and energetically paced account of the “Great” C Major Symphony Sunday (March 1) afternoon changed my mind. Unlike Beethoven, who brilliantly developed his ideas with logic and inspiration, Schubert avoided the rigors of development by spinning out new melodies with prodigious ease.

Ling welcomed each new idea in Schubert’s immense tapestry with meticulously calculated dynamic shifts, affectionately highlighting these fresh woodwind themes, brass fanfares, and string soliloquies without losing the underlying propulsion of each movement. Conducting from memory, it was evident that he knew exactly what he wanted, and the orchestra responded with alacrity, providing a tight, balanced ensemble throughout this sprawling work.

In most symphonic orchestrations, the trombones fill a supporting role to the trumpets’ flashy assertions, but in the Ninth, Schubert gave the trombones significant thematic prominence, with the trumpets merely adding decorative commentary. Under the confident leadership of Principal Trombone Kyle Covington and with the muscle of Bass Trombone Michael Priddy, the low brass provided the grandeur the composer imagined for his valedictory symphonic statement.

Among current pianists who have championed the composers of the Classical era, Richard Goode has few peers, and his account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major proved admirable from every technical standpoint. He floated deftly phrased themes and pearly runs with apparent ease, and he even unleashed a hint of passion in his cadenzas. But this later concerto in Mozart’s career failed to ingratiate itself even under the skilled hands of a performer like Goode.

Mozart finished this concerto in 1786, the same year The Marriage of Figaro took Prague by storm, and the last movement suggests the humor of one of Cherubino’s arias. But overall, this concerto is too polite, too formal for its own good, and Goode could not make that better.

Ling opened the concert with Ellen Taaffe Zwillich’s “Upbeat!” a cleverly crafted curtain raiser for large orchestra that fulfilled its purpose handily.

This program on the Jacobs Masterworks Series was given February 27 & 28 and March 1, 2015, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next program on this series will feature Pinchas Zuckerman as violinist and conductor in three different programs from March 21 to March 29, 2015.

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1 Comment

  1. Geoffrey Clow on March 3, 2015 at 7:51 am

    We have a wealth of helpful insight on this program — Eric Bromberger notes, Nuvi Mehta preview, and concert reviews from you and James Chute. Everyone finds structural issues with both the Mozart PC 25 and the Schubert 9th. Even performers ignored the Mozart and disparaged the Schubert during much of the works’ history, we’re told. Yet, taken on their own terms, both can be satisfying concert pieces. James found Friday’s performance of the Mozart “immensely satisfying”, while Sunday’s performance of the Schubert redeemed that work for you.

    The works’ peculiar traits can be taken as either shortcomings or virtues. As James says of the Mozart, it “seems like a symphony with piano accompaniment rather than a concerto.” That is, soloist and orchestra are in collaboration rather than in competition, and there is little drama or virtuosity. On the other hand, the ensemble and instrument writing is beautiful, and watching an instrumentalist of Goode’s ability interact with principals and sections is very entertaining, drama or no.

    I enjoyed your backhanded compliment that “Schubert avoided the rigors of development by spinning out new melodies with prodigious ease.” In his 9th, he tosses melodies around the orchestra like beach balls. Many different principals are featured; various wind sections take the lead, repeatedly; strings are relegated to support roles several times. For his part, Ling definitely kept the ball moving. In this case, it was all great fun, structure or no.

    For me, the combination of Mozart’s not-quite-a-concerto and Schubert’s not-quite-a-symphony was an effective program, and played to the strengths of the performers. Ling is cooperative and even deferential to his guest soloists, and Goode handled leadership opportunities in the ensemble-style piece exquisitely. On orchestral pieces, Ling strives to keep the audience entertained; in the Schubert, that approach was effective and appropriate. All told, the foibles of the pieces were handled well and they balanced out, for a delightful concert.

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