Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Pieter Wispelwey (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 21 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London Queen Elizabeth Hall
Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony – he only completed the first two movements – heralds a new sense of feeling in music that leaves behind the strictness of classical sonata form for a broader view of musical expression. The gift of any conductor in this particular work is to marry its marriage of classical design with romantic content. Furthermore any interpretation should be judged on proclaiming the genius of Schubert for expressing everything from anxiety to valediction. Very few composers of any period possess such diversity in their creativity.
The ‘Unfinished’ Symphony has become, unfortunately, aural wallpaper, so popular, and so frequently is it heard. It gives special delight, therefore, to report pleasure (hardly the appropriate word on hearing this apex of Schubertian expression) from Joseph Wolfe’s subtle and absorbing interpretation that was here beautifully played. The quiet opening on double basses gave way to a nervously inclined statement on violins that launched the wide-ranging themes of the first movement. Sometimes fierce, sometimes calm, all sides of Schubert’s character were on display and portrayed with the right sense of balance and integrity.
Likewise the second movement, Andante con moto, was true to its title and never lingered. Wolfe found a range of expression from his judicious choice of tempos that lifted the spirits and reinforced the essential nature of well-being in the music. It was a fine performance.
Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto, written in 1873, is a good example of the composer’s formal innovations in musical structure. Compressing material normally in three movements into one convincing whole displays a mental agility alongside his romantic sensibility. Commentators often proclaim a lack of depth in this French composer’s output but, even supposing this to be true, he more than compensated for this ‘sin’ by his formal experimentation, none more so than in this popular concerto.
Played with the right spirit of romanticism, the Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey, propelled the start of the first movement with true ardour. Never loosing his intonation in the scurrying scale passages he balanced the various moods with elegance and taste. The orchestra was well balanced by Wolfe who allowed the soloist full reign in displaying tonal lustre.
After the interval came Sibelius’s First Symphony, a work that ends a decade of his nationalist- and often literary-inspired music with this attempt at abstract musical expression. In fact the symphony is Sibelius’s response to Finnish critics who demanded evidence of his ability to write a non-programmatic symphonic work. Sibelius was the Finnish musical hero of the moment as the nineteenth-century drew to its close and would have regarded the challenge for writing such a work with a mixture of trepidation and relish. In fact what was meant to be the first of its kind in Finnish musical history was usurped by a much younger Finn, Ernst Mielck, a real musical prodigy who wrote an abstract symphony two years before Sibelius composed his. Mielck’s work is indebted to German romanticism as expected from a pupil of Max Bruch. Sibelius’s work is much more individual though it does sound a lot like Tchaikovsky in places. However the very opening for solo clarinet is striking for setting the tone of the entire work. It also serves as a motto theme that is bought back at the beginning of the finale. It is somewhat surprising to learn this was an afterthought, though a truly inspired one, that appeared a year later when Sibelius revised the work after its premiere in 1899.
What was remarkable about the performance under Wolfe was how the indebtedness to Tchaikovsky was played down in favour of a true Sibelian sonority even in the often-mushy slow movement. Wolfe accentuated the varying woodwind themes above the string mêlée, which produced a true freshness to the fabric of the work. Each movement had an authentic momentum that gave the whole piece a semblance of formal unity rare in most interpretations. The coda in the finale was a true summing up of the emotional roller coaster heard before. Sibelius subsequently produced many more truly idiosyncratic masterpieces but none was to reveal a romantic coherence that lies at the heart of his First Symphony. It is to Wolfe and the LPO’s credit that this character was bought to the fore in this wonderful performance.