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Berio's ‘Love Letter’ to Schubert, Inspired by Sketches for an Unwritten Symphony

05.31.08
Emanuel Ax
The New York Times

The dynamic conductor David Robertson was almost certainly on the short list during the New York Philharmonic's search for a music director to succeed Lorin Maazel. Though Alan Gilbert wound up with the job, on Thursday night Mr. Robertson conducted the orchestra in a concert that suggested what qualities he might have brought to the position.

It was not just the characteristically inventive program he devised but the way he presented it that was so rewarding, especially when he turned to "Rendering," Luciano Berio's wildly free recomposition of sketches Schubert made late in his short life for what was to have been his 10th symphony.

Mr. Robertson, a born teacher, began with an engaging explanation of the work. To understand Berio's aim when he undertook this project in 1988, Mr. Robertson suggested, it is helpful to know something about Schubert's sketches: scattered fragments of themes and incomplete longer passages, written for piano with just hints of possible instrumentation.

Mr. Robertson asked a Philharmonic pianist, Harriet Wingreen, to play the vigorous, jaunty theme that Schubert intended to open the symphony's first movement. It's just 16 measures, and not until measure 14 do we get "anything that resembles harmony," Mr. Robertson said. Then he had the orchestra play Berio's rendering of the passage, thick with Schubertian harmony, though touched with quizzical, vaguely modern elements.

Mr. Robertson seemed genuinely moved as he explained that Schubert, in the last month of his life and fearing that his skills at counterpoint were deficient, started taking lessons. Because Schubert was poor and manuscript paper pricey, he jotted down a homework assignment - a counterpoint exercise - on a page of the symphony sketches. Berio was so touched by Schubert's dutiful yet tender counterpoint (which Ms. Wingreen performed on the piano) that he included the exercise in the second movement of "Rendering," remaking it into a mystical, tonally unmoored, elusive passage.

In this 35-minute piece Berio honors Schubert by composing a fantastical rumination on his sketches. He patches the fragments onto a three-movement structure, filling in the missing swatches with his own music, producing a "love letter" to Schubert, as Mr. Robertson called it. In the most modern sections of the work Schubert and Berio are eerily mingled, as if Berio had tapped into Schubert's creative mind, a jumble of fleeting ideas.

Mr. Robertson's devotion to this score came through in the sensitive, colorful and exactingly executed performance he drew from the Philharmonic players. The music's effect was enhanced by its placement on the program after another hybrid work: the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell's nuanced and piercing orchestrations of three piano études by Debussy. Mr. Jarrell transcribed these austere late Debussy works in 1992.

After intermission the pianist Emanuel Ax joined Mr. Robertson for an exhilarating performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. When you reach the mature master stage of your career, as Mr. Ax has, aren't you supposed to turn all probing and autumnal? Not Mr. Ax, who played with youthful brio, incisive rhythm, bountiful imagination, delicacy when called for and thundering power when the piano fought back.

The ovation was so ardent that Mr. Ax played an encore, the melancholic Andante from Schubert's Sonata in A (D. 664), which, in the spirit of the evening, was exquisitely rendered.