Jan. 30, 2019

On 30 January 2019, Maestro Vladimir Gorbik conducted the Capital Symphony Orchestra in a concert of symphonies by Schubert (No. 4) and Mendelssohn (No. 1) at the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, to an enthusiastic capacity audience of 400 people. Maestro Gorbik founded this ensemble in 2017; it draws its personnel from freelance professionals and members of the other major Moscow orchestras. At full strength the orchestra comprises about 60 members, but for this concert a reduced version of the ensemble was utilized, comprising 35 players: a string contingent of 6-5-4-3-2, plus pairs of woodwinds and trumpets, four horns, and timpani. A studio recording is being made of these two works at Mosfilm Studio in conjunction with the concert, which will add three more violinists to create an 8-6-4-3-2 string configuration instead. (The orchestra is also remarkable for having a significant number of women members, which is an encouraging sign.)

Both symphonies are cast in the key of C Minor, and are in nature dramatic works of youthful passion. Being more classical in form and scale, they do not attain the summits of passion found in Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 5, which served as a model to both composers. Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, subtitled “Tragic,” was written in 1816, when the composer was 19 years old. The subtitle has often been criticized as an inappropriate exaggeration. However, when one considers the word in its original sense as the opposite of comic, denoting a serious rather than humorous or erotic type of drama, the title finds sufficient justification here. The slow Adagio molto introduction to the first movement, all pensive melancholy, gives way in the succeeding Allegro vivace to disturbed agitation. While the second movement Andante initially offers yearning repose, it is twice interrupted by stormy sections that disturb the calm. The brief Menuetto is the movement in these two symphonies that has elicited the most diverse and contrasting interpretations; whereas most conductors nowadays take it at a rapid clip with only one beat to the bar, others such as Karajan adopt a much slower tempo with three beats to the bar, imparting the heavy weight of a peasant clog dance. The Allegro finale is similar in both its mood and tumultuous thematic materials to the Allegro vivace section of the first movement; unlike many minor-key symphonies this does not simply modulate to the major key, but instead alternates minor- and major-key sections, thereby extending the more dramatic overall tenor of the work. There is no triumph or exaltation in the conclusion, only a dogged determination to reach the finish line.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 was completed in March 1824, when he was only fifteen years old. Having already crafted twelve string symphonies, the precocious young composer was here on the cusp of his breakthrough to artistic maturity and renown, with the Octet in E-flat to follow in 1825 and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826. Already the stamp of Mendelssohn’s distinctive genius is unmistakably present in every bar. The opening Allegro molto, with its rapidly scurrying string figures and martial interjections from the brass and timpani, is fiery and energetic, but not ominous. A beautifully flowing Andante follows; unlike the slow movement in Schubert’s counterpart here, its soothing serenity remains undisturbed. The succeeding Menuetto, Allegro molto, is energetic in its outer sections, with many ingenious and tricky shifts in the metrical figures of its thematic material. It also displays unusual and striking independence of form in the extended length of its elegant, more relaxed middle trio section. The Allegro con fuoco finale is all bustling energy, with Mendelssohn displaying his considerable skill in writing fugal passages; a piu stretto coda section shifts the work firmly into the key of C major, with an acceleration of the tempo, for a hectic, jubilant close.

While these two symphonies are not entirely unknown to concert-goers, performances of them are far less common in Russia than in Western Europe, and so the opportunity to hear them both provided a special musical treat. Maestro Gorbik stated that none of the orchestra’s members had ever played either of these works before; both their professionalism in learning these works in a short space of time, and their enthusiasm for the many delights in these scores, were manifest in their completely stylish and sympathetic playing. Despite the relatively small number of string instruments employed, the players produced the rich, full string sound for which Russian orchestras remain rightly renowned, sounding like a much larger ensemble in the hall’s friendly acoustics but never becoming too heavy in texture or obscuring the clarity of the plethora of rapid passage-work in the two scores. Under Maestro Gorbik’s firm, skillful direction the entire orchestra played with great precision, unanimity, and expressivity. His beat is clear and free from exaggeration, which ensures rhythmic exactitude; he mainly uses the baton in his right hand, only occasionally adding his left hand for emphasis or to signal instrumental entrances. His choice of tempos tends to be on the brisk side, though in the Menuetto of the Schubert symphony he chose to adopt a moderate but relatively slower tempo for emphatic stress. Singing, sustained melodic lines dovetailed seamlessly with the more dramatic interjections that sometimes punctuated them. Musical textures remained clear throughout, with the strings, winds, and brass being ideally balanced; the timpani perhaps projected a degree too much in the hall’s vibrant acoustic, though its powerful interjections were always exciting. This well-conceived concert was a triumph in every way; one looks forward enthusiastically to the compact disc recording being made in conjunction with it as a souvenir of the occasion, and to future concerts by this orchestra and Maestro Gorbik.

James A. Altena, Associate Editor, Fanfare magazine, USA