Originally published on May 28, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
We may do well to put aside the metaphorical Dawn to Twilight title attached to the Schubert/Berg Festival, which began last night at Davies Symphony Hall. Intriguing as it may sound, the metaphor may well beg more questions than it resolves. We may similarly wish to put aside Thomas May’s extended essays on the parallels between Franz Schubert and Alban Berg and simply accept conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ decision that they should cohabit this series of four programs he arranged for the San Francisco Symphony. All that really matters is the music itself. Any issues of overarching contextual relations are better approached on a composition-by-composition basis.
Thus, what matters most is that, in this first concert of the Festival, each composer was represented by two works and each composer appeared once on either side of the intermission. The evening began, appropriately enough, with an overture (D. 644) by Schubert, followed by the orchestrated version of Berg’s seven “early songs.” The intermission was followed by Schubert’s B minor D. 759 symphony (“Unfinished”), concluding with the three orchestral pieces of Berg’s Opus 6.
Illness deprived us of the opportunity to hear Berg’s songs with their original piano accompaniment sung by Magdalena Kožená last month, and this was somewhat unfortunate from the perspective of appreciative listening. As I wrote in a preview article, these songs were probably the first product of Berg’s study with Arnold Schoenberg that attained approval of both master and pupil. They were composed between 1905 and 1908, which situates them squarely in the context of the master’s first chamber symphony, which pushed so many envelopes that many of today’s conductors still struggle to deal with it. The poems that Berg selected abound with images, all of which symbolize different depths of the human soul; and Berg’s piano accompaniment provided a rich setting of both sides of this symbolic arrow. The songs were not orchestrated until 1928, by which time Berg had achieved an uncanny mastery of orchestration (early signs of which we could hear in the Opus 6 pieces). The transition is somewhat like that of an artist who first explored a particular image through a charcoal sketch and later returned to it in the medium of oils on canvas. (This metaphor seems appropriate in the context of Schoenberg’s own talent as a painter, one of whose portrait subjects was Berg himself.) Thus, it helps to get to know these songs through the initial relationship between voice and piano, after which we can appreciate how that relationship blossomed into an orchestral one.
Theory aside, Michelle DeYoung’s performance of these songs was as accessible as it was passionate. She delivered the text with all the clarity it demands, blending her voice with Thomas’ command of Berg’s rich orchestration. From the point of view of Berg’s original conception, both sides of that symbolic arrow in each text were not just honored, they were apotheosized. Indeed, in this performance one could feel that “air of another planet” from the text by Stefan George that Schoenberg set in the final movement of his second (Opus 10) string quartet, which, like the first chamber symphony, was completed while Berg was first working on the piano version of these songs. It is hard to imagine a better relationship between a pupil and his master.
The Opus 6 pieces were not Berg’s first orchestral effort. Completed in 1915, they were preceded by his setting of texts by Peter Altenberg for soprano and orchestra from 1912 (which will be performed next week on Wednesday and Thursday with soprano Laura Aikin). More important, however, is what followed Opus 6, since Opus 7 was his first venture into opera, Wozzeck. In the introductory remarks to his translation of Woyzeck, the play by Georg Büchner that forms the basis for Berg’s libretto, Carl Richard Mueller compared the text to “a series of stained-glass windows in a medieval cathedral.” In many ways that simile also holds for Berg’s three collected orchestral pieces and may even suggestion why his Wozzeck opera was the logical next step in his path towards writing for full orchestra. It is thus not surprising that each of the Opus 6 pieces provides cultivating soil, if not the actual seeds, for Berg’s first major opera project.
The clearest connection can be found in the waltz-obsessed rhythms of the second piece (which happens to be the last one Berg completed), whose mood would later be reworked into the beer garden scenes in Wozzeck, first when Wozzeck sees Marie carrying on with the Drum Major and then when he tries to block out the memory of his just having killed Marie with beer-saturated revelry. Similarly, the march themes of the third piece project into not only the parade that the Drum Major leads but also the beating he gives Wozzeck after crowing about his conquest of Marie. Finally, while the opening “Präludium” piece does not relate to the Wozzeck plot line, the prelude form is there at the very beginning of the first act of the opera, while the sinister colors of the orchestration project to the second scene, in which Wozzeck’s mind snaps in the light of a blazing sunset. Lest these connections seem far-fetched, it is important to remember that, as Michael Steinberg observed in his program notes, Berg saw a performance of Woyzeck while working on these orchestral pieces. Regardless of how explicit these dramatic connections are, Thomas’ interpretation of these three pieces was highly dramatic and, in the case of the climax to the march piece, almost painfully effective.
How, then, did Schubert stand along such “big guns” from Berg? Needless to say, the “Unfinished” symphony had no trouble holding its own. However, the presence of Berg may have led the ear to pay more attention to Schubert’s details of orchestration, rather than settling in with all the familiar tunes. Schubert could be uneven in his orchestral technique, but the two existing movements of this symphony positively shimmer with their diverse approaches to orchestral color. Thomas’ command of those colors made this all-too-familiar warhorse sound as fresh as a young colt. If this was a side-effect of our ears having been conditioned by Berg’s orchestral talents, then that would be sufficient to juxtapose these two composers.
Less impressive was the opening overture, which has nothing to do with the Rosamunde play by Helmine von Chezy, whose name it acquired. As Steinberg observed, the composition was actually a reworking of one of Schubert’s earliest compositions to be performed in public, his D. 590 overture “In the Italian Style.” The work is almost better viewed as an exercise; and, compared with the rest of the program, the performance felt a bit on the routine side. Still, if it helped to get the ears into shape for all that was to follow, then perhaps it was just fulfilling its role as an overture!