Disney Hall’s week-long tribute to the music of Franz Schubert came to a grand close last Friday. Or should that be “Great?” As in Schubert’s hour-long Symphony no. 9, also known as the “Great.” And great it certainly is: not merely in the symphony’s musical material, which is some of the finest ever crafted by this composer. But also great in its proportions. This is, after all, the symphony fêted—and gently tweaked—by Schumann for its “heavenly length.” Schubert out-Beethovening Beethoven; prefiguring the massive symphonic frescos of Anton Bruckner. More on that later.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

Some of that greatness and grandeur spilled over into the concert’s first half, in its clutch of Schubert Lieder sung by Matthias Goerne. Gone was the intimacy of the original settings for voice and piano. In its place was Schubert as refracted through the lens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its love of pomp and grandiosity, orchestrated for full orchestra. While such arrangements may seem curious to the sensibilities of modern listeners, they were fairly popular over 100 years ago. Think of Mahler’s arrangements of Beethoven and Schubert string quartets, for example.

The composers who orchestrated these Lieder—Johannes Brahms, Max Reger, and Anton von Webern—did so with great taste and surprising restraint. Though Reger’s orchestration of Erlkönig hinted at Wagner at his stentorian best.

Christoph Eschenbach, who returned to Disney Hall on the conductor’s podium after being at the accompanist’s bench earlier that week, ensured that the orchestration never overstepped the boundaries of good taste. Matthias Goerne, as ever that week, was in superb voice. He has few peers today who can match his quality of vocal technique and intelligence in word painting. Each song was shaped as a miniature drama or solo aria, sung with penetrating insight. At the tail end of the first half, he lavished a pair of encores on the audience: the deathless Serenade and An die Musik.

At the close of the program was Schubert’s symphony. It is a curious work that stands out in Schubert’s oeuvre. No other work of his matches it in terms of scope and ambition. “Heavenly,” both in length and in the heights it touches.

Eschenbach can be quite an erratic conductor, blowing hot and cold by turns. Here he was mostly lukewarm, though “tasteful” could also be a worthy adjective. That said, he seized the first movement with conducting of great passion, moving swiftly and tautly; indeed at times, such as the movement’s close, the playing was incandescent. But the following three movements were rather slack in comparison. That tautness of the first movement was gone. The contrasts between loud and soft in the slow movement were rounded off; the athletic vigor of the finale held on a much too firm leash.

The playing of the orchestra, however, was superb. Especially memorable was the playing of oboist Ariana Ghez, who imbued her solo in the second movement with a plaintive, gentle sorrow.

After the delights offered earlier in the week, it was a bit of a subdued ending to the “Sublime Schubert” series. Though perhaps one needed to touch the earth in order to better appreciate the truly sublime heights reached in the previous song recitals.

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