TWO PERFORMANCES OF THE “GREAT” C-MAJOR Symphony; in between, the no-less-great C-minor Sonata: We Schubertians, a noble if embattled breed, had reason to stand tall last week. Great performances of great works reveal new facets, no matter how familiar the works themselves may already seem; they then lead to new ways to think about those works, and about the creative spirits who brought them down to Earth. And even though the past week also afforded one other experience of enormous, unsettling power, it is Schubert who occupies my mind on the Saturday afternoon on which I write.
No other music, composed before or after the C-major Symphony, bears any resemblance to it. Within the broadest outlines of the forms that had served composers well for, let's say, 75 years, Schubert invented a new music — new in melodic manner, new in its way of respecting (or disrespecting) the classic forms, new in its very sounds. All the program-note writers point to Schubert's pioneering use of the trombone in this symphony, not to reinforce the downbeats at the big moments (as did Beethoven in his Fifth) but as a soft, mysterious, romantic voice from afar. In the sketches for a final symphony that Schubert worked at on his deathbed — which others have patched together as a putative 10th — there are passages even stranger, moments where four trombones are massed in a kind of funeral oration. What marvels these tantalizing score fragments do portend! But the C-major Symphony offers other innovations: the textures in the string writing, the sonorities of soft brass and strings in the Trio of the Scherzo, and, of course, the cataclysm, the apocalypse, as trombones confronting the full orchestra argue A-flat versus C in the final pages.
It's not easy to account for any of these wonders flowing, at such lengths and with such exuberance, from the pen of a 28-year-old ailing composer, darling of Viennese hippie society but woefully lacking in friends in higher places. In 1822, at 25, Schubert had composed two movements of another symphony of similar innovative spirit, then laid it aside unfinished; those movements, at least, survive as one of our richest treasures. Schubert surely realized that, given his outsider status, music as daring as his B-minor Symphony, resonant with passions hitherto unknown in musical circles, was doomed to gather dust; of course he was right. We have to marvel, then, at the courage it took, three years later, for Schubert to start the upward climb once again, and this time make it to the top — “top,” that is, in the sense that he finished the work. It still gathered dust for years.
The history of this symphony and the sound of it — at the Music Center last Wednesday, with the Philharmonic and guest conductor Hans Vonk, and at Royce Hall two nights later, with Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra finishing out their subscription season — are closely intertwined. You have to take the giddy momentum of that amazing last movement, leading into the flaming torrents of its final measures, as some reflection of Schubert's own wild enterprise in attempting the work. Musicians in the London Philharmonic are said to have ridiculed this movement on first confrontation, 10 years after Schubert's death. I giggle too, at its sheer bravado, the message, the massage. Neither Vonk nor Kahane took notice of Schubert's request to repeat the exposition of this finale, thus adding another four minutes of unbridled hilarity. I accept their wisdom, allowing for the symphony's 50 or so minutes without repeats, yet . . .
Between the two performances I would be hard-pressed to choose; both gave off accents of love, admiration and — a most necessary ingredient here — patience. Vonk, Netherlands-born and current head of the St. Louis Symphony, led a solid, respectable reading through a thick pall of whooping cough and the Black Death; Kahane's audience, in the brighter and kinder acoustics of Royce Hall, gave off the impression that they were there to hear the music.
MURRAY PERAHIA'S ROYCE HALL CONCERT, QUITE likely the best piano recital I have ever heard or could ever want to, ended with the great (lower-case, this time) C-minor Sonata, one of the miraculous three from Schubert's last year. Again, it is the madcap exuberance in the finale that makes the work's first friends, the onrush, the quick jamming-on of brakes, the sudden excursions into the middle of next week. The quiet, pleading simplicity of the slow movement makes friends more slowly; the fist-shaking opening movement makes no friends at all, but bedazzles us with its defiance, the desperate clinging to life of a doomed spirit with mere weeks to live.
At 52, Perahia has staked out a particular territory on the pianistic landscape that nobody else of his generation can challenge. His repertory is unsullied by the socko warhorses that others ride to glory: the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos, Pictures at an Exhibition, etc. His program here — Bach, Beethoven and Schubert — abounded in heavy thinking, all of it delivered with Perahia's unique mix of humor and high drama, colored with a command of piano tone full of glints and soft, subtle colors. A finger injury in 1992 put him out of commission for five years; he has returned to performance fully recovered, a deeper, more humane musician. The morning after his recital I went to his master class at UCLA. Four students played; for each he had words first of commendation and then of concern. His concern wasn't so much with fingers and wrists, but with the essentials of music itself — the harmonies, the momentum, the themes and their permutations — and their role in determining the direction of a piece. What he taught — to one-fingered me and to the budding young virtuosos in the hall — was a way of living in music, and of letting music live with you.
THE WEEK'S OTHER MIRACLE WAS, OF COURSE, Thomas Quasthoff's half-program with the Chamber Orchestra: Bach's “Ich habe genug” Cantata and four Mozart arias. The shock in the sight of Quasthoff onstage, his body the victim of Thalidomide, lasts perhaps half a minute; you marvel at his agility, his infectious huge smile, the utter absence of self-consciousness with which he has conducted his career. Then you listen, to that big voice so smooth, so flexible in the service of music's moods, so utterly pure in its dark beauty. You think: This is the voice for Die Winterreise, and there's already an RCA recording to prove you're right. The fogies among us spent the intermission riffling through memories of Hans Hotter, Paul Schoeffler, George London, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, of course, and Hermann Prey. The circumstances around Quasthoff make comparisons difficult, but one impression stands out: In a world where outrageous premiums are placed on differentness — or have we already forgotten David Helfgott? Andrea Bocelli? — Quasthoff comes to us to make music, and he does it right now as well as anyone on the planet.