Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (8): Mark Minkowski’s Revelatory Way with Schubert

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (8) – Schubert, Les Musiciens du LouvreLes Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, Mark Minkowski (conductor) Usher Hall, 14.8.2013 (SRT)

Schubert: Symphony No. 1 in D
Symphony No. 5 in B flat
Symphony No. 7 in B minor, “Unfinished”

I loved Mark Minkowski’s set of the Schubert symphonies when it was released last year, so I was particularly looking forward to their pair of Edinburgh concerts. In most respects I wasn’t disappointed. As with the discs, Minkowski and his band create a sound world that, to quote Lynton Crosby’s advice to the British Tory party, gets the barnacles off the boat. His sound for Schubert is fresh, lean and scrubbed down, revealing new things without any loss of beauty. The period instruments sound superb but never raw or abrasive, evidenced by the delightful first theme of the Fifth Symphony or, even more so, the sublime main theme of the Andante. Minkowski’s speeds tend to the fast side, but not overly so, so that the bustling, open textures of the First Symphony sound superb, and the grandeur of the big C major chords is in no way diminished. Furthermore, he has a wry sense of fun with the grace notes in the First’s finale, and he isn’t above throwing in a cheeky pause, as in the finale of the Fifth.

It’s in the tragic world of the Unfinished that the orchestral sound really comes into its own, with the plangent oboe solo, the lonely clarinet at the outset of the Andante’s second subject, or the cries from the horns and violas that could be stabs of pain. I wanted a bit more dramatic contrast, though. Minkowski had fortes and pianos, but not too much of either and he tended to steer a fairly safe path between the two, which sounded a bit homogenous and not risky enough. Bizarrely, there were a couple of occasions where he tried to quieten the orchestra but they didn’t seem to want to follow him. The period winds lacked the final edge of precision, too. This team is back tomorrow night for No. 3 and No. 8 (or should that be No. 9?), the “Great” C major. That’ll be an interesting test.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson

For Part 2 of this series see Schubert Symphonies (2)