Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Defying the darkness of the unknown

Schubert: Symphony no. 5; Brahms: Serenade no. 2

In his Book of Friends Hugo von Hofmannsthal says "Joy requires more devotion, more courage than sorrow. Joy enjoins one to submit, precisely so far as to defy the darkness of the unknown." It's this joy that we hear over and over again in John Eliot Gardner's great recordings of Bach. He talks in his great book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven about "the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music," and it's this zest that comes out in this new Schubert/Brahms disc recorded at a concert in The Concertgebouw on November 12, 2016.

It's perhaps easy enough to bring out the joyful side of Schubert's lovely 5th Symphony, which contains more beautiful melodies than some composers produce in a lifetime. Gardiner treats this very much as a classical work, which makes sense considering how much Schubert was in the thrall of Mozart at the time. That both Schubert and Mozart suffered in their lives more than the average composer makes this music even more miraculous; it truly does "defy the darkness of the unknown."

The two Brahms Serenades also come from a dark time, just following the death of Robert Schumann. As much as I love Brahms, I've never really taken to either of these works, but not because of any life circumstances. Rather, they both suffer a bit from being preparatory works for Brahms's symphonies to come. It's too calculated a move, I think, for such slight material. Gardiner gives it his best shot, as do his marvellous musicians, but the music doesn't really take off like the Schubert does, and furthermore it suffers from coming right after such a perfect piece. At the concert at The Concertgebouw the Brahms led off the evening, and the Schubert was the last work, following Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto with Kristian Bezuidenhout. Still, serviceable Brahms and perfect Schubert still make for an entertaining and joyful hour of music.

This disc will be released on August 31, 2018.

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