What do Schubert’s Third Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde have in common? Not a whole lot, which is why it came across as rather puzzling that the two pieces should be programmed together. Yet, in the Oslo Philharmonic’s September 6 and 8 concerts, they were. The result was a mixed bag of two wildly different works, written almost a century apart.

The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra with Jukka-Pekka Saraste © Bo Mathisen
The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra with Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© Bo Mathisen

Schubert’s Symphony no. 3 is not one of his most performed. Written in 1815 by an 18-year-old Schubert, it is certainly an impressive work, especially given his young age. It is thoroughly Classical in form, harking back to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, but at the same time the harmonic language is advanced, almost reminiscent of Beethoven. The first movement starts off with a slow introduction, soon giving way to a playful theme dominated by almost Rossinian woodwind solos. The second movement is a simple little Allegretto with some very memorable melodies, and the third movement is a Minuet with characteristic accented upbeats and a Ländler-like bassoon and oboe duet as the trio. The fourth movement is easily the most inventive, with upbeat tarantella rhythms and an innovative harmonic language, but it stays firmly put in the Classical tradition, and at the same time it looks ever so slightly forward to Schubert’s later symphonies and to the contemporary symphonies of Beethoven.

Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s Schubert was Classical indeed, with grace aplenty, although it was overly streamlined and overall lacking in wit. The most successful movement was the first, although the strings had a very thin sound, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing for this symphony, the first movement contains moments where a more weighty sound is desirable. Still, the movement’s many woodwind solos were very good indeed and the more dramatic parts were among the most exciting of the whole piece. The second movement was graceful enough, albeit very static, and as a result never sounded like anything more than a seemingly endless procession of eighth-notes. The third movement was surprisingly uninteresting. Its accented upbeats were pretty much treated as obstacles blocking the way to the fourth movement. Still, the trio was one of the highlights of the symphony. Things seemed to fall into place in the fourth movement, and Saraste seemed to have a clear idea of what he wanted with it. The result was an exciting finale with rapid string melodies and surprising dynamic contrasts.

Next followed Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, his 1907 setting of poems from The Chinese Flute, German translations of ancient Chinese poetry by the poet Hans Bethge. It was written at a very difficult time in Mahler’s life; his four year old daughter had recently died of diphtheria and Mahler himself had just been diagnosed with heart failure. Das Lied von der Erde was written directly after Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, but whereas that symphony largely is positive in outlook and dealing with the theme of redemption through love, Das Lied revolves around the themes of parting, life and death.

Saraste took a very no-nonsense approach to the piece, always driving the music forward and not being overly sentimental or romantic. Rather than it being an almost uninterested play-through, like the Schubert, Saraste knew what he wanted from the orchestra, and they seemed more at home in this piece. The sound of the orchestra was very different in the Mahler than in the Schubert. The strings were fuller, although there were still hints of the same transparency that was so apparent in the Schubert. The performance seemed to be deliberately quiet, and there was a clear sense of a massive decrescendo starting in the first movement and ending in the sixth. This was a very interesting approach, and it mostly worked, although I could not help but feel that this might have put too rigid boundaries on the many orchestral soloists in the piece. Still, it was refreshing to hear the chinoiserie of the middle movements played down, something that made the piece as a whole seem more cohesive.

The two solists were French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and Swedish tenor Michael Weinius. Weinius delivered a nuanced performance, full of lyricism, but he also managed to capture the grace of the third movement and the sudden mood-swings of the first. His German diction was also impeccable and not a word was lost to the orchestra. Stutzmann on the other hand lacked the vocal size, and was often drowned out by the orchestra. Especially her low notes were often difficult to hear. Nevertheless, her performance was moving, her diction good, and the sixth movement included some glorious phrasing.

It was a mixed bag the Oslo Philharmonic presented Saturday night. A cool, ever so slightly boring Schubert symphony that could otherwise have been full of life, warmth and excitement, and a Mahler performance that was at times brilliant, but overall too rigid.

***11