Review: An Orchestra Falters in Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony

Despite Schubert’s best efforts, his “Great” Symphony never received a performance in his lifetime. Initially considered overlong and unplayable, it took Mendelssohn, who gave its premiere, and Schumann, who wrote passionately of its glories, to bring it to light more than a decade after Schubert’s death. Now it’s a repertory staple.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s and its principal conductor, Bernard Labadie, closed their first concert of the season together with the symphony at Carnegie Hall on Thursday — pulling off the hourlong work only intermittently. A sense of occasion flickered in and out.

Schumann praised the symphony’s “heavenly length,” and its extended stretches of repeated material do give it an expansive air — not unlike the landscape of Gastein, Austria, where it was written. At Carnegie, Labadie and his forces made emphatic use of recapitulations and musical echoes, giving them a swell of renewed vigor or, when called for, a more diaphanous quality.

Woodwind chorales, led by penetrating oboes whose silky tone occasionally turned rough-hewn, were handsome, and the brasses played with a captivatingly neat style — clear and stringlike, but also rousing when required. The cello section took its higher-lying solo in the second movement with breadth and transparency. Elsewhere, the strings anchored a bristling Scherzo, driving the music with buzzing figures and arpeggiated leaps, but thinned out toward the end of the symphony.

Problems with communication and balance emerged among the sections. When the strings and woodwinds handed off phrases to one another, they seemed to be telling different stories instead of completing sentences. The strings often covered the beautiful divisi writing for winds or trombones. The beloved Trio lacked the sense of swirling, airborne, circular momentum — perhaps because of Labadie’s heavy downbeat — that makes the return to the opening bars of the third movement such a whirring delight.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat, with Emanuel Ax as the soloist, opened the program. It’s obvious in retrospect that Labadie had calibrated his orchestra to the dimensions of the Schubert. The fullness of the players’ tone, the strength of their attack, the opacity of the texture — all of it weighed down the simple joviality of the Mozart.

These two pieces share a similarly extroverted, convivial spirit offset by moments of startling intimacy. In the Mozart, that intimacy takes the form of a theme and variations in a minor key during the Andante. It almost feels like a concert aria of lightly expressed melancholy that needs time to unlace itself; Labadie instead kicked up high-key drama. When Ax rendered Mozart’s quick, broken octaves as a lovely murmur, the orchestra ignored him and plowed ahead. In the final movement, soloist and orchestra occasionally lost each other.

Ax, who recorded the concerto in the 1980s, had the notes at his fingertips. He played broadly, confidently, showing the architecture of whole passages and thumping out Mozart’s grace notes with cheeky brazenness, even if individual phrases wanted for detail. Ax skimmed over scales, and there wasn’t much beauty to relish in his straightforward treatment of melodies that had the potential to sing.

His encore, Liszt’s arrangement of the Schubert song “Ständchen,” was the opposite: a whisper of something private under the moonlight. He voiced the melody elegantly and applied suppleness to the chordal accompaniment.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s likewise found inspiration in its own final moments onstage. As the fourth movement of Schubert’s symphony came to an intense finish, its themes breaking through the prevailing texture, the players dug deep for a rooted sound that felt alert to the score’s momentousness — and to the music they were making together.

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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