In the final concert of its fifth season, in Sanders Theatre on Sunday, the Discovery Ensemble focused on the German Romantic tradition, from a eulogy to the dying embers of late Romanticism by Schoenberg, to a superb performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, concluding with an energetic reading of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony.
Schoenberg began work on his Second Chamber Symphony in 1906, but found that he was unable to finish it at the time. He returned to it in 1939 at the urging of an old colleague from Vienna, conductor Fritz Stiedry, in what some have called a sentimental return to tonality. It might be better to say that Schoenberg here confronted the question of what it means to write tonally after the atonal and twelve-tone advances that he himself helped to define. He seems to have needed to work through those ideas before being able to complete the work he had started 33 years earlier—and seeing what was happening to Vienna in 1939, he now knew how that story ended.
The work opened with the short theme that would become the unifying core of the entire two-movement work, played with elegant sadness by Bianca Garcia, flute, expanded and explored Mahler-like through a seductively moribund movement that developed linearly to a fade-away end. The second movement began with sprightly joy, perhaps reflecting the gaiety of Viennese life at the start of the century, with beautifully intricate work by the winds and subtle reflections in the horns. But the mood was not sustained and shifted back to the opening theme before being crushed by darkness, as if the reality of 1939 Vienna had descended over it.
The Discovery Ensemble was joined by Irish pianist Michael McHale, conductor Courtney Lewis’ colleague from Belfast and Cambridge, in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. As Lockwood put it in his Beethoven biography, “With this work the history of the piano concerto entered a new phase. At long last Beethoven had brought all his artistic powers to bear on the concerto.” McHale gave a masterful reading of the work, evincing a natural rapport with Lewis and bringing out the quiet, steady beauty of the piece. I have never seen a better coordination between soloist and conductor, their timing exquisitely perfect throughout. From the prayer-like opening chords, McHale emphasized elegance, clarity and continuity of line, with minimal turbulence and ferocity. The contrast between pianistic gentleness and gruff agitation in the strings was especially effective in the magnificent andante that, in this reading, evoked a Job-like contending between man and Fate. The finale was an outpouring of joy, wonderfully contained by McHale’s insistence on avoiding overstatement. Responding to an enthusiastic ovation, McHale played an elegant Nocturne by his fellow countryman John Field.
The program concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, from 1841, his “year of the symphony.” He revised it somewhat in 1851 and published it with the instruction “in one movement” on the score. Schumann was accused of muddy orchestration, Weingartner for instance writing in 1897 that his instrumentation was “so thick and dull that if it were played as he marked it, nothing of any meaning would be given out by the orchestra.” Lewis spent nearly half of the pre-concert talk discussing his efforts to deal with the muddiness problem, noting that it was caused in part by Schumann’s weakness as a conductor, which led him to keep all of the instruments playing so that he would not miss their entries.
The efforts paid off, as the performance displayed the main musical lines clearly throughout. The slow introduction was nicely played by the horns, which performed admirably throughout the entire symphony. The allegro was brisk, sharply delineated and dynamic, with great contrast between the quiet passages and the sudden outbursts, a special characteristic of Schumann’s style. The ensuing Romanza, starting with a plaintive march-like theme led by Zachary Boeding, oboe, gave way to the wonderful manna from heaven section, led by concertmaster Julia Noone. The Scherzo followed without interruption, played with brilliant intensity, almost demonic in places. The transition section to the last movement, a clear reference to the transition in Beethoven’s fifth symphony, was given a nicely foreboding reading by the brass, oboe and flute. The great outburst of the finale was played as an amor fati, love of one’s fate, with great exuberance and energy.