April 24, 2004

Subtle, colorful Schubert

Harnoncourt and the Berlin Philharmonic


Franz Schubert
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82
Mass No. 6 in Eb major, D 950


Berliner Philharmoniker
Nikolaus Harnoncourt - Conductor

Rundfunkchor Berlin
Uwe Gronostay - preparation

Dorothea Röschmann - soprano
Bernarda Fink - alt
Jonas Kaufmann - tenor
Christian Elsner - tenor
Christian Gerhaher - bass

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Subtle, colorful Schubert

Harnoncourt and the Berlin Philharmonic

by Nancy Chapple

What a discovery! Even a classically informed audience may not be familiar with Schubert's rarely performed Masses. Thus it was a joy to be introduced by Nikolaus Harnoncourt to the lovely Mass No. 6 in Eb major, D. 950. The mass is a beautifully colored, often soft and subtle yet highly expressive work in six movements, filled with innovative and pleasing modulations. The concert's first half, Schubert's 1st Symphony, written when he was only 16, paled somewhat in comparison, though there too several pleasing surprises laid in wait, e.g. subtle shifts between major and minor chords. The sound was layered in the Adagio: chords resolved at different times in different voices, creating harmonic tension; the orchestral sound was colored so that the contours were clear in a series of sequences. The minor harmonies in the Andante were in no way maudlin. The Trio of the 3rd movement was surprisingly out of tune among flute, oboe and strings. In general, the strings produced a warm, rich, centered sound, especially in the Allegro vivace - which Harnoncourt presented in such a fast interpretation that we could barely catch all the subtle distinctions within the phrases. Not that one needs to be able to perceive each note individually, but the tempo choice was quite daring.

The Mass' Kyrie was pliable, rich. The Gloria starts in the choir alone in a glorious major. The orchestra then joins in, and it felt like a glow of religious faith powered the colors Schubert chose, for instance on "peccata mundi". The fugue on "cum Sancto Spiritu" was technically perfect, but not very moving. Unusual in this movement: the trombones play a major role in giving support to the melody. As often experienced this season, the Rundfunkchor sounded great: lively, in tune, focussed, in musical character. Their crystal-clear pianissimos, as heard for instance in the Credo, were particularly breathtaking. The Mass has five soloists, but their accomplishments for the most part paled beside the concentratedly beautiful sound of the choir and also the orchestra. Dorothea Röschmann, soprano, was certainly strong, but almost too operatic for the nature of the piece; her voice quite dominated the quartet of soloists in Benedictus. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann had a demure sound, somewhat wobbly and reedy. Harnoncourt took long breaks between the movements; it was unclear whether he was waiting for silence from the audience or giving the choir much needed breaks. The Agnus Dei was clothed in an amazing dark color of admonishment, exhorting us with repeated trumpet tones on the second beats.

In Harnoncourt's interpretation, Schubert did not just create easy-on-the-ears, sing-along melodies, but rather highly daring harmonies. Our expectations as listeners were continually built up and then thwarted, and our ears were subtly stretched.