MM 4: Schubert’s “Real” Unfinished Symphony

United StatesUnited States MM 4: Schubert/Berio, Beethoven Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 7.8.2012, (SSM)

Schubert/Berio: Rendering
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat major (“Emperor”)

Luciano Berio’s exploration of new forms of music was unrelenting. One of the first composers to work with electronics to transform the human voice, he was a major influence on many modern composers. Yet, unlike many of his ilk, he had no ax to grind with music before his time. Boulez might have shouted, “All art of the past must be destroyed” but Berio, born the same year as the French composer/conductor, would never have supported that type of radical call to arms. His famous arrangements of folk songs run the gamut of styles from the Renaissance through and beyond Cantoloupe.

Berio’s tying together and filling out of the musical fragments that were left behind at Schubert’s death is a wholly different achievement that that of Cooke completing Mahler’s Tenth or the recent “completion” of the Bruckner Ninth by a group of musicans. Cooke had close to a hundred pages of Mahler’s orchestrated score and Bruckner had already completed a good part of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. Schubert left no completed orchestrations, just pages of first thoughts written out on the two piano staves. Berio knew that there wasn’t enough material to complete a whole symphony but unlike the other “completists” he did not fill in the missing parts with what he thought the composer, if still alive, might do; rather he added his own music. In some ways it’s reminiscent of the Baroque practice of improvising connections between movements, such as the transition between the first and third movements of the Bach Third Brandenburg Concerto, written with only two notes: a musician was expected to improvise the rest.

Susanna Mälkki conducted a vibrant rendition of this work, smoothly integrating Berio’s music into Schubert’s. The transitions shimmered and glistened aided by the delicate sounds of the celeste. The true Schubert sections looked forward to what the Tenth Symphony might have been: a clear line to Bruckner. Where some of Berio’s music could seemed like static, Mälkki grounded it so that it didn’t sound like a radio tuned a megahertz or two from its true station I.D.

One expects that someone as imposing as Garrick Ohlsson would sit down at the keyboard and produce a sound equal to or greater than a Richter, Gilels or Agerrich. But quite the opposite occurred here. Ohlsson gave a refined, almost elegant interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth piano concerto, effortless attention to detail. Few pianists perform like this today and from the past, Artur Rubenstein comes to mind as Ohlsson’s stylistic predecessor. Subtle tonal expressions showed the lyrical side of this work. Ohlsson worked with a palette of colors as much as he did with a range of dynamics. The second movement Adagio was poetic in the extreme and the only disappointment for me was the lack of surprise when the second movement suddenly goes with out pause into the delightful third movement.

Stan Metzger