Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reading Schubert's 5th

Schubert's Fifth Symphony in B-flat isn't a great symphony, but it's very pleasant listening and, unlike many of the works in "Assignment Two," it doesn't require a huge investment of time. Written when the composer was 19 years old, it plays like a light, cheerful tribute to Mozart. There are a few moments when you might even swear Schubert had lifted a passage directly from Mozart; in at least one instance (a transition passage in the Minuet) he actually does quote directly from Mozart's 40th Symphony!

Movement I is an easy-going sonata that sparkles with youthful joy and Puckish magic. Movement II is graceful and lyrical, the third-movement Minuet brusque and dramatic with a rustic village-dance-type trio, and in the humorous finale the ghost of Haydn elbows his way into view.

All the movements share the sense of being something Mozart, Haydn, or a young Beethoven might have written - with a few differences. Here Schubert eschews contrapuntal arguments, and his work is relatively free of dramatic tension, giving a surface impression of naive simplicity. But in his mastery of orchestral texture and daring harmonic twists and turns, Schubert matches and even excels the earlier masters to whom this work is a fitting homage.

I have always liked the Schubert 5th. It's not so much the kind of piece whose implications keep one awake at night, as one whose tunes one finds oneself whistling all through the following day. If you loved Mendelssohn's 4th and Schumann's 1st, I think you will also like Schubert's 5th.

EDIT: The video below is of Mark Heron conducting an Estonian orchestra in the first movement of this symphony.

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