Franz Schubert — bringing music to life
Deep in the bowels of the Radio Centre in Dublin’s Donnybrook sits Studio One. Much larger than the others that line the walls of the two parallel corridors on its flanks, Studio One is a performance space, home to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra when it’s honing its programme, with room for an audience of almost a hundred, should the occasion demand it.
One such was the visit of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra to play live on The Hamilton Scores. It was a bank holiday Saturday, and they’d tuned up to deliver a kind of a musical Cook’s tour, playing pieces from the places I talk about on the radio show.
We headed through England (Elgar’s Salut d’Amour) to France (Offenbach’s Barcarolle), before catching up with a Spanish bullfighter (the toreador from Bizet’s Carmen).
Then, it was across the Med for some Italian sunshine (Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony), before turning back towards Germany (a Beethoven Romance), swinging east to what’s now the Czech Republic (one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances).
A broad, anti-clockwise loop then took us up via Scandinavia (Finlandia by Sibelius), before touching down on home soil for the finale — Danny Boy in the sumptuous arrangement by our own much-missed Eurovision Song Contest veteran Noel Kelehan.
Back to Studio One in the Radio Centre, where the audience is on a balcony overlooking the stage. I got to sit facing them, right beside the conductor that lunchtime, Gavin Maloney.
What blew me away was the sheer energy that comes from a live band, the absolute exhilaration as the tempo picks up, the strings drive the momentum, the brass makes bold statements, and the woodwind dances its way along a mesmeric path.
That could have been describing a recording I heard recently of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in action, launching into a spellbinding interpretation of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No 5.
Under its long-time director, the Danish maestro Thomas Dausgaard, who is soon to begin his final season in the position after over two decades in charge, there is a thrilling vitality about the performance.
The symphony demands as much. The composer was only 19 when he wrote it, during a period in his developing career when he was looking back at the glory of Mozart, his musical hero.
There are plenty of allusions to Wolfgang Amadeus. This particular symphony probably best captures the urgency so key to Mozart’s 40th.
Schubert struggled to get a hearing for his symphonies in his lifetime. Vienna, his hometown, with over 100 of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies to stage, and Mozart demanding attention, too, had plenty of big set pieces to be going on with.
So Schubert made his living from songs, setting to music popular poems, and turning himself into a giant of the Lieder genre in the process.
He only lived to be 31, but in that time he’d produced nine symphonies, as well as everything else. Beethoven, who was 26 years older, and bestrode the Viennese scene like a colossus when Schubert was around, was only getting started on his first symphony at a similar stage in his career.
Schubert, the master of the Lieder, wrote a mean symphony, too. Orchestral music with a feel-good factor, full of the energy and excitement that made that lunchtime in Studio One an occasion to remember.
George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday