Last week Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) began his season-long project to perform and record with the San Francisco Symphony all four of the symphonies composed by Robert Schumann. The numbering of these symphonies does not reflect the ordering of their composition. Both the first, Opus 38 in B-flat major, and the D minor fourth were composed in 1841, although the latter was only published as Opus 120 after considerable reworking. The second, Opus 61 in C major, was composed between 1845 and 1846, followed by the third, Opus 97 (“Rhenish”) in E-flat major, in 1850.
This was a relatively narrow period of Schumann’s mature life, but a highly productive one. Furthermore, these symphonies provide a particularly trenchant account of those two fictitious characters behind Schumann’s bipolar personality. The “cerebrally meditative Eusebius” (my own phrase from a previous article) has finally decided to take on the symphony with due respect for the iconic status the form has acquired at the hands of Ludwig van Beethoven, while the more wildly manic Florestan is champing at the bit to exercise his expressiveness with the resources of a full orchestra. Both of those characters were clearly on display last week, with Eusebius probably having a hand in selecting the same key that Beethoven had chose for his third symphony and with Florestan eager to raise the “Eroica” rhetoric of that symphony to new heights.
This week MTT devoted the second half of his program to Opus 38, the earliest of the four symphonies. Eusebius clearly influenced the conventional four-movement architecture; but Florestan was just as clearly behind all of “the action.” Schumann decided to give the symphony the name “Spring” while churning it out at a prodigious pace over the course of four days in January. (His diary suggested that the name may have preceded the music itself.) It abounds with bold sweeping gestures, beginning with the very opening measures; but it also is filled with almost violently abrupt shifts in rhetorical stance.
Opus 38 also offers the first taste of that brief descending motif, whose significance was observed last week. In Opus 97 it appears briefly to introduce the recapitulation of the first movement, only to find its own life several years later as the opening theme of the opening movement of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major. In Schumann’s Opus 38 that motif makes its first appearance as a bridge motif in the second (Larghetto) movement (where its significance was apparently recognized by Eusebius).
During last night’s performance of Opus 38 at Davies Symphony Hall, MTT seems to have found just the right balance between Eusebius and Florestan to honor both the letter and the spirit of Schumann’s score. Much of this involved MTT’s sensitive balance of resources that had more to do with Florestan’s enthusiasm than Eusebius’ restraint. Schumann was notorious for overloading his brass parts; and four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones certainly made for a generous supply in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, Schumann recognized that the bass trombone could bring a new sonorous dimension to the bass line; and he was not shy about using it. This left the conductor with the responsibility of keeping it balanced with all the other instruments, and last night MTT’s sense of balance could not have been more perceptive.
Equally problematic is Florestan’s tendency to attach significance to every item in the score. The result is an onslaught of rhetorical turns too numerous to mention. Fortunately, MTT appreciated that not all of these turns should be treated with equal weight. The result was an overall sense of flow that never short-changed the dramatic while always recognizing that significance was a matter of varying intensity over the course of that flow.
This week the first half of the program was devoted to the music of Richard Strauss. The featured soloist was Laura Claycomb, who had selected the six settings of poems by Clemens Brentano in Strauss’ Opus 68 collection. However, by the time the program book was printed, it was decided that only the first five of these six songs would be performed.
Strauss composed these songs in 1918, possibly while working on his highly enigmatic opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow). Stylistically, however, the songs were composed in the shadow of his transcendent blend of comedy and tragedy, Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Ariadne’s grief at having been abandoned by Theseus on the isle of Naxos is interrupted by a troupe of commedia dell’arte players led by the sexually hypercharged Zerbinetta. Zerbinetta became the beneficiary of one of the most memorable coloratura arias of the twentieth century, as salacious as it is technically demanding.
In Opus 68 there is a strong sense that Strauss could not get enough of Zerbinetta. The wild leaps and suggestive curlicues of her embellishments linger in the very first song of the set and blossom in full flower (so to speak) in the fifth, which is a depiction of Cupid. The question with Strauss, however, is whether or not he could tell when he was serving up too much of a good thing.
With his opera librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to restrain him, Strauss could summon up some of the most profound dramatic sentiments in the operatic repertoire. Many (myself included) would say that the Strauss-Hofmannsthal partnership was the first to plumb the depths of the human heart since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had partnered with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Left to his own devices, however, one has to wonder just how much Strauss respected the words he was setting. There is much to be said for the poems he chose, but it is unclear that same holds for his readings of those poems. This is not just a matter of semantics (which, for the most part, Strauss always seemed to be able to “get”). It had to do with whether his music was working with or in opposition to the literary devices that made these texts poetry, rather than mere prose.
Thus, while MTT was able to provide a convincing “landscape” of the rhetorical surges in Schumann’s Opus 38, his overall conception of Strauss’ Opus 68 songs were less convincing. Ultimately, it was all about giving Claycomb free rein for her virtuosity. This made for an impressive display, but it was a display that outshone both the music and poetry that justified its very existence.
MTT chose to begin the program with a very early Strauss composition, his Opus 7 serenade in E-flat major for thirteen separate wind parts. Because Mozart had written a serenade (K. 361 in B-flat major) for a different composition of thirteen instruments (mostly winds), there was some sense that this music involved Strauss looking back at Mozart as Schumann had looked back at Beethoven. Particularly interesting was Strauss’ sparing use of the bass horns and contrabassoon, thus depriving the music of the solid foundation of a continuo bass. The “heart” of the music, so to speak, floats on its own in the upper register across the pairs of flutes, clarinets, and oboes. While Strauss came across these ideas as a teenager, they would subsequently surface in his approach to vocal writing (including the Opus 68 songs). MTT’s selection of Opus 7 was delightfully perceptive; and he reinforced it was a well-conceived and loving account.