Of all composers none has been the subject of more conjecture and fantasy than Mozart and Schubert. What treasures would we be enjoying today had their lives not been cut short even before most artists reach the full power of maturity? In the case of Schubert, my favorite fantasy is that a 10th or 11th symphony would have included, perhaps even been built around, the human voice. Certainly such a symphony would have included sounds like or growing out of the style of the late choral pieces we heard performed by the North Carolina Symphony in Meymandi Hall this night. The Symphony was joined by soloists Heather Buck, soprano, Krista River, mezzo-soprano, Carl Halvorson, tenor (replacing James Taylor), Robert Bracy, tenor, and Christopher Normura, bass. The Duke University Chorale and the Choral Society of Durham are directed by Dr. Rodney Wynkoop.
The program opened with the Offertorium in B-flat, D.963, “Intende voci” (text from the 2nd verse of Psalm 5 — “Harken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray.”) It was composed barely a month before his death, probably for his friend Johann Rieder, choirmaster at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Alsergrund on the north side of Vienna. Though the text fits the liturgical reading for the Friday after the third Sunday in Lent, the work’s scale and full orchestral score would indicate it was intended for a special occasion. It is a masterful score, lyrically enchanting and featuring a tenor solo that is beautifully balanced with the choral passages. There was a sense of prayerful pleading in the performance that expressed, without doubt, what Schubert had in mind.
Next, the stage was cleared, a grand piano rolled out and guest artist for the Schubert Festival, pianist and conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn performed the Sonata in A Major, D.959, one of the three piano sonatas completed in August of 1828. In this piece Schubert’s lyrical voice charms, delights and inspires the listener. Solzhenitsyn’s performance was from inside the music pouring out all of Schubert’s genius through his own musical knowledge and emotional experience. The most striking impression from this work was its changes in mood, especially in the fully developed first movement. From feathery runs over a gentle melody to powerful, almost Beethoven-angry passages, to a bewitching melody and an awesome closing coda, Solzhenitsyn was with every note, every dynamic, every crescendo and decrescendo. When the soloist sat back after the first movement, the audience burst into applause. He mopped his brow, evidence of the devoted intensity of the performance and raised his index finger as if to say that’s just the first movement. The rest was just as awesome: the warm harmonically rich Andantino, the totally charming Scherzo movement with chords leaping all over the keyboard, and the closing Rondo. There was a sense of experiencing something very special tonight.
It is appropriate to interject here congratulations and gratitude to Solzhenitsyn and North Carolina Symphony General Manager and V.P. for Artistic Operations Scott Freck, who nurtured this “Schubert’s Farewell: The Miraculous Final Year” series from a conversation in 2003 through fruition and triumphant completion. The juxtaposition of chamber music, solo and four-hand piano music, orchestral and choral music provided a unique insight into the life of the professional musician as well as the genius of Franz Peter Schubert. This series will long be remembered and treasured by those who experienced the delight and pleasure of hearing any or all of it.
The program closed with the Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D.950, composed between June and August of his 31st year as his health was failing. Throughout much of this time he suffered frequent digestive distress, poor appetite, frequent headaches, and he was easily exhausted. Yet he composed his most ambitious, innovative and sublime mass in this period. His characteristic gift of melody is apparent everywhere in this piece. The bulk of the vocal work is done by the chorus with solo ensembles interwoven with the choral passages in the Credo section and the Agnus Dei. The choirs were masterfully prepared by Wynkoop and the soloists were ideally chosen for their roles. The work as a whole is gentle and assuring, and Music Director and conductor Grant Llewellyn kept the orchestra, soloists and chorus in perfect balance. His reverent and sensitive closing allowed several most welcome seconds of reflection before hearty applause burst forth. It was an awe-inspiring conclusion to a wonderful series.
In this mass, and in other major works created in his last year, Schubert took new directions that had the promise of even more incredible things to come. But alas it was not to be. What we have is what we have and it is no small thing, for it continues to give pleasure and joy 178 years after his death, and will continue to give to many future generations.