Thursday, January 31, 2008

See Those Two Little Dots?

So now we've had two Schubert "Great" C-Major Symphonies in the space of two weeks — led, respectively, by Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco and Kent Nagano in Berkeley — and neither conductor took the exposition repeat in the first movement. What's up with that?

I know there's a line of thought out there that says that repeats, and Schubert's repeats in particular, are kinda sorta optional. (Alfred Brendel wrote something to this effect in an essay in the New York Review of Books a number of years back, and I really ought to try to dig it up, because the argument couldn't possibly be as flimsy as it seemed at the time.) But I'm not buying. What's the thinking, that we're all busy people with someplace else to get to? Wouldn't the default position be to, y'know, play what the composer wrote? Maybe I should just be grateful they did all the movements.

Because look, the narrative in a traditional sonata-form movement isn't "Here's some music, now we'll mess it around, now it all comes out nice in the tonic." It's "Here's some music — wait, you sure you've got it fixed in your mind? OK, now we'll mess it around, etc." Skipping the exposition repeat jettisons a structurally essential part of that narrative. It's like a card trick in which the magician doesn't bother to make certain everyone sees the card that's been drawn.

Not only that, but you can lose some great music in the process (though not, admittedly, in the Schubert C-Major). In my callow youth, I got to know the Brahms First through a recording that omitted the first-movement repeat — and with it, one of the most glorious moments in that movement. I'm talking about the jolting shift from E-flat minor back to C minor by sheer force of compositional fiat, a grandchild of Beethoven's similarly willful move from E-flat to C as he launches the coda to the first movement of the "Eroica." It was years before I heard Brahms' scintillating passage, all because some conductor (Bruno Walter, I think, though I could be wrong) decided to drop it on the floor.

I don't mean to be doctrinaire about this, except that yes I do. As a general rule, the composer knows more than you do, for most values of "you." So play the damn repeat, why don'tcha. Or if you don't think Schubert's music is interesting enough to hold up for two go-rounds, then program, I don't know, Respighi or J. C. Bach instead. Sheesh.


At 2/01/2008 6:39 AM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Bravo! Another canonical example of missing a great bit by not taking the repeat is Mendelssohn's Italian symphony, first movement.

Two questions: how well did Nagano conduct the Schubert? I have been unimpressed with his forays into early 19th century music in the past. And did he take the exposition repeat in the last movement, which is short and helps balance out the gigantic exposition?

At 5/21/2009 6:20 PM, Anonymous bratschegirl said...

what else was on the program? were they risking overtime? or was kent just pretty sure that if he announced he was taking all the repeats he'd "disappear" mysteriously on his way back to the car after rehearsal?

At 5/21/2009 9:19 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Gah. Of course I meant "...helps balance out the gigantic development."

At 6/06/2009 11:42 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

And at this week's performances of the Great C Major...he skipped the exposition repeats in the first and last movements. Grrrr.


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