Many great musical creations have a long period of gestation. Other times, inspiration (often borne of necessity) comes quickly, and a memorable new composition is created in a matter of weeks. Such was the case with two of the pieces presented on this weekend’s program of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © Ash & James Photography (2015)
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© Ash & James Photography (2015)

Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was his breakout “hit”, composed in his mid-twenties when a recent student of Bridge. Written at the request of Boyd Neel, whose chamber orchestra needed a new work to introduce at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, Britten began his sketches in May 1937 and delivered the score a mere three weeks later.

The piece presents all sorts of opportunities for stringed instruments to shine in texture, expression and sonority. Each of the piece’s ten variations (loosely based on a theme from Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet), is tied to a different aspect of the older composer's personality as discerned by Britten.

To say that the SPCO strings met every challenge the music presents would be an understatement. Watching this ensemble at work is just as impressive as hearing them, as the Britten (and indeed all the other works on this program) was performed without a conductor. Each variation was presented with aplomb, including the energetic ones in the middle of the piece. For me, the most riveting artistry came in the final three variations. In the Chant variation in particular, the viola passages were so affecting, they had the entire audience in their thrall. In short, this was incredible music-making on every level.

Another youthful work – this one composed equally in a hurry – is Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D major. Schubert had just turned 19 when he prepared this score in less than two months in 1815. It was presented in a private concert shortly thereafter, but the symphony would not be heard in a public performance until nearly 50 years later (and it was only published in 1884). Schubert’s early symphonies already have an air of maturity about them and yet one can sense more even poise in the Third. The composer also presents his ideas more concisely and with greater economy; at fewer than 25 minutes in length, the Third is noticeably shorter than Schubert’s two earlier symphonies.

The SPCO performance was a breath of fresh air. After a suitably dramatic introduction, the Allegro con brio section followed with its perky clarinet solo theme and syncopated strings masterfully played. The Allegretto was presented at a faster tempo than I’ve ever heard before. Not that Schubert intended it to be a customary slow movement, it also has a light touch, with trumpets and timpani absent from the scoring. I found that the SPCO’s bracing tempo really worked, making a strong case that this may be the best way to approach the movement. Here again, the clarinet solo playing was outstanding.

The Menuetto movement was winsome. With its oddly accented upbeats, one senses that it’s a minuet in name only, as it veers much closer to being a scherzo. In the Presto finale, the SPCO pulled out all the stops in a dynamic presentation where tarantella-like rhythms and dynamic contrasts were played to the hilt – so thrilling it gave me goosebumps.

Throughout the symphony, the SPCO’s exciting interpretation was delivered with no sacrifice of precision accuracy. In all, it was a highly memorable performance of a Schubert symphony that doesn’t get nearly the exposure in the concert hall that it deserves. In this regard, the Saint Paul players are doing their part to bring Schubert’s early symphonies to the stage; I reviewed an equally impressive SPCO performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 for Bachtrack last season.

The opening item on the program were selections from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni as arranged for wind octet by Josef Triebensee. Five of the 18 numbers that make up Triebensee’s arrangement were presented, including the introduction (“Notte e giorno faticar”), Zerlina’s “lament” (“Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”), and Donna Anna’s poignant aria (“Non mi dir”), along with two shorter numbers. The SPCO winds’ presentation of these numbers was faultless in interpretation and ensemble. The only drawback was the interpolation of some rather awkward and occasionally cringeworthy spoken commentary between the numbers. Rather than adding to the proceedings, if anything it served to undermine the quality and polish of the musical performance. But this was the only “wrong note” in an otherwise laudable concert that did much to showcase the very considerable talents of the SPCO – both as a cohesive artistic group and as outstanding individual players.