We last heard the CBSO perform at Birmingham Town Hall before they moved to Symphony Hall so, for us, this concert was quite a nostalgia trip. We have fond memories of the young (and not then Sir) Simon Rattle melding the world class orchestra we know today in that historic performance space.
In those days the Town Hall was cursed with the acoustic-killing retrofitted addition of an upper circle. Nowadays that unfortunate accretion has been stripped away and we can listen to music written at the start of the 19th Century in a beautifully elegant, spacious, aesthetically and sonically appropriate venue, which made this concert exclusively comprised of Schubert a particular joy.
The focal work of the evening was Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, the ‘Tragic’. The tendency to give major works like this a nickname can sometimes be a bit irritating and limiting. True, this nomenclature was attached by Schubert himself, but it fails to do justice to this complex, fascinating and multifaceted composition.
Indeed, here we see some of Schubert’s wonderful innovations in the genre of the symphony. For example: glorious, lush modulations to keys of the flattened third and sixth, rather than the more Classical practice of simple, workmanlike modulations to the dominant or relative major/minor key, also; a fresh approach to the use of the (so-called) sonata-form in the first and last movements, where we have a Beethovenian experimentation with what is sometimes termed extended sonata form. Like Beethoven, this allows Schubert to do all kinds of new and daring things.
Add to this another Beethovenian (and Haydnesque) trick – a trick which was to become one of the hallmarks of the 19th Century Symphony; the building of a movement from the use of recurring, short, memorable motifs. Think, for example, of one of the most famous opening motifs in music; that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The use of recurring, memorable motifs, be these motifs melodic, rhythmic (or harmonic or intervallic), allows a composer to expand the canvas (length etc) of any given movement without losing a sense of overall musical unity. Famously, of course, this was to become the so-called Leitmotiv technique in the epically long music-dramas of Richard Wagner.
Under the subtle, sensuous and frequently muscular direction of Edward Gardner, the sudden twists and turns in the construction of these movement was beautifully executed. In the hands of Maestro Gardner, this became not so much Schubert’s ‘Tragic’ Symphony, but rather the Angst Ridden, Rather Manic, But Ultimately Triumphant Symphony. Now how’s that for a nickname?!
The opening is all furrowed brows and foreboding, but Gardner’s reading framed the first movement as an abstract question about the human condition, crying out to be answered, and, in the light and shade of its development, showed us glimpses of potential answers.
The inner movements seemed to take us through an argument arising from this initial question. The lyrical body of the slow movement is interrupted by spikey outbursts that dissipate into twitchy call-and-answer figures thrown with increasing nervousness around the orchestra. The off-kilter Scherzo constantly threatens to catch its balance, but never quite manages to do so. Marvellous stuff.
And so, we reach the final movement: at first a breathless rush, but then gathering strength, muscle and momentum until we are flying and carried aloft to an uplifting and affirming conclusion. This was an exhilarating and revelatory reading of a work you might think you knew; hats off to Edward Gardner.
The first half of the evening was comprised of lesser-known works. One suspects that, as this is part of what is to be a recorded symphonic cycle for the Chandos label, the First Symphony was included for completeness, and that the Fierrabras Overture could well be a stocking filler. These pieces are distracting enough and the orchestra did them justice as just that. Sadly, however, we had the same-old, indeed, countless years old, problem of ghastly, amateurish mistakes in part of the horn section. Such a shame; because, yet again, this issue turned an otherwise outstanding performance by the CBSO from a Five Star rating to Four. The CBSO really need to resolve this problem, which simply everybody talks about; including reviewers on other platforms and for various other publications. However, if one somehow simply tries to ignore this irritation, the main and overwhelming delight of the evening was a supremely invigorating delivery of Schubert’s – and let’s not make a fuss about its nickname – Fourth Symphony.