Pfitzner, Gruchmann, Schubert

Franz Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (#9 according to standard numbering, #8 according to reality and today’s program book, #7 according to publication – but always the “Great C Major”) is a standard of the repertory, and pops up in my concert schedule almost every year.  Recent performances – even good ones – have left me wanting.  Today’s, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under Constantin Trinks, did not.  It’s not that I necessarily heard anything new (I have heard some intelligent interpretations over the years accomplishing that), but Trinks and the Mozarteum Orchestra gave a full-bodied rendition of this symphony, each movement pulsating and lively.

Schubert had intentionally written a big one: as of his time, the longest purely-orchestral symphony.  Unperformed at his death, it was dusted off a decade or so later, when Schubert’s brother gave a copy to Robert Schumann, who appreciated its value and passed it further on the Felix Mendelssohn, who gave the work its premiere and became its champion, despite ridicule in other circles.  Apparently people said it was unplayable, but that merely their incompetence.  For the Mozarteum Orchestra, it clearly is not unplayable.  And if it is purely orchestral, the lovely winds provided the voices with exquisite and emotional playing.

The concert had opened with the preludes to all three acts of Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner.  The opera tells the legend of how the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina saved music from a papal ban.  The prelude to the first act starts with a chorale for four flutes, and gradually grows – as though the piece is writing itself – to reflect that in the legend an angel had inspired Palestrina to write the mass that convinced the pope and his retinue of the value of music, and once Palestrina started writing, so inspired, he did not pause.  For a full-sized orchestra, the Mozarteum Orchestra nevertheless managed the delicate lines with tenderness.  Pfitzner’s late-romantic music, used the conventions and orchestral palette of of 1917 to portray the 16th-century master.

The next set of works also bridged the centuries: the young Salzburg-born composer Jakob Gruchmann (born 1991) has a style which bridges his own family background in traditional folk music with the avant-garde, and today’s concert including two contrasting works by him.  The first was Pictures of Heaven based on five frescos in the Thurgau parish church depicting the life of St. Martin.  Gruchmann set this music to texts by Sulpicius Severus, who knew St. Martin and had written his biography in the fourth century.  The string orchestra bridged traditional motives with more modern tonalities, supplemented by a percussion section whose main role seems to have been to make it all funky, but never overbearing (after all, this is religious music, in a way).  Russian soprano Alexandra Lubchansky gave the Latin texts full intonation, perfectly balanced with the orchestra and depicting the emotions of the scenes.

The final piece before the intermission was the world premiere of Gruchmann’s Wer vom Ziel nicht weiß (“he who does not know of the goal”), a poem by Christian Morgenstern – a piece commissioned by this Orchestra for this morning to serve as a bridge from Pfitzner to Schubert.  This was a little more jarring.  Lubchansky got more heated (without losing her wonderful tone) to assert herself with the rumbling orchestra (strings, six horns, and a tuba).  Worth hearing, and it did pull the morning along from Pfitzner to Schubert, but I’m not sure it spoke to me.  Pictures of Heaven (premiered in 2010) was better.  But it did demonstrate the versatility and creativity of Gruchmann and was well worth a listen.

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