United Kingdom Schubert: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Oxford Philharmonic/Mario Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 18.3.2017. (CR)
Schubert – Rosamunde Overture [from Die Zauberharfe, D644]; Romance ‘Der Vollmond strahlt auf Bergeshöhn’, D797; Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118 (orchestrated by Reger); Die Forelle, D550 (orchestrated by Britten); Im Abendrot, D799 (orchestrated by Reger); An Sylvia, D891 (anonymous orchestration); Erlkönig, D328(orchestrated by Reger); Symphony No.9 in C major ‘Great’, D944
For this orchestral Schubertiade the Oxford Philharmonic neatly looked back to the opening of their last concert where they began with a Rossini opera overture, by performing here the Italianate overture by Schubert commonly known as that to the incidental music for Rosamunde, though actually written for Die Zauberharfe. As on the previous occasion, under Marios Papadopoulos’s direction they made nearly a tone poem of it, with the pregnant opening chords, an expressively languid slow introduction to follow (even if rather slower than the ‘Andante’ marking) and a genial fast principal section.
Anne Sofie von Otter joined them for the rest of the first half in a selection of orchestrations of the composer’s songs, seamlessly linked with the Overture by way of the Romance from the Rosamunde music. The orchestra caught the aching lilt of the accompaniment, serving as the backdrop for von Otter’s wistful vocal melody, in which she used vibrato judiciously and the slightly brittle quality of her tone only emphasised for the better the music’s vulnerable character. That was likewise the case in Gretchen am Spinnrade, even if one missed the clicking of the spinning wheel in the non-percussive timbre of the orchestra, and the line spun by the violins was ragged; but the ensemble overall conjured an ideally foreboding atmosphere.
In the subsequent songs, von Otter’s performances were notable for their sustained, lyrical quality, allied with a sense of humour in Die Forelle, and an insouciant, ironic charm in An Sylvia which singers often neglect, though there might have been more malice in her interpretation of Erlkönig generally, despite two strongly, dramatically declaimed gestures. The orchestral opening to Die Forelle was somewhat torpid, lacking the glistening flow of the water, but Papadopoulos instilled ideal repose and spaciousness in Im Abendrot. As an encore von Otter gave a tenderly still and rapt account of Nacht und Träume, D827, though in the orchestra’s following suit so closely with their accompaniment, the sudden modulation down a major third for the middle section did not register with the shatteringly cathartic effect here as it might have done, or as it would on the piano, but was passed over as of little consequence.
For the most part this performance of the ‘Great’ Symphony – seemingly Schubert’s symphonic response to Beethoven’s last, towering examples – held together its ambitious structure and irrepressible energy cogently. That was testament to Papadopoulos’s command of its proto-Brucknerian musical paragraphs, though the joins between sections were sometimes roughly handled, rather than subtly blended. His control did seem, however, to be bought at the expense of some sense of grandeur and a more sustained, long-term view of its architecture, by largely avoiding the use of rubato, and generally taking a rather brisk approach to the first two movements. Oddly in the opening movement that was not even consistent, as there was a sudden increase in speed for the second subject (whose unexpected shift to E minor hardly needs to be emphasised in any case) which was then maintained for the remainder of that movement. Not only did it feel rather relentless, it effaced the full dramatic force of the sequence of grinding minor seconds in the development. The second movement survived rather better, marked ‘Andante con moto’ as it is, and Papadopoulos ensured a properly powerful build-up towards its climax, with its devastating dissonant chords, anticipating the similar catastrophe at the centre of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Ninth.
After a muscular account of the Scherzo, and a slightly tense Trio section (not completely imbued with Viennese Schwung), in the finale the Oxford Philharmonic struck an ideal balance between remorseless pace from bar to bar and a momentum sustained more broadly across the whole movement. Well-integrated ensemble among the orchestra throughout the Symphony also lent this performance a balanced, not overwrought, character which gave authentic voice to the distinctively Schubertian quality of long-breathed effortlessness and inevitability, which is significantly different from Beethoven’s motivic pithiness.