Having founded, polished and honed Les Musiciens du Louvre as the perfect medium for French baroque, the conductor Marc Minkowski has extended his activities through Offenbach, Gounod and Massenet to Meyerbeer and early Wagner, even to Debussy’s Pelléas. The judicious exploration of repertoire is no more than expected of a conductor, but the baroque-practice disciplines of rhythmic buoyancy, textural clarity and clean attack characterise even his approach to Romantic music. To a composer who, like Schubert, stands at the crossroads, looking both back and forward, Minkowski’s long view brings rich resonances, prophesying what will, or might have, come.
Wednesday’s Usher Hall concert, the first of two devoted to Schubert symphonies, illustrated Minkowski’s ease with the echoes of Haydn and Beethoven in the young composer’s First Symphony, the portents of Biedermeier Gemütlichkeit in the radiant Fifth, and the dark shadows of a Grimm Brothers wood in an unusually dark-toned “Unfinished” (traditionally the eighth, now numbered seven).
The last emerged as introspective, mysterious, almost ominous. Minkowski’s rigid dynamic control ensured that in the opening passage the lower strings were as barely discernible as uneasy stirrings in the subconscious, a forest as dark as the young Mahler’s wood of ill-omen in Das Klagende Lied. Stabs of feeling and moments of reassuring harmonic warmth made the work into a meditation on its own rather than tantalisingly toothsome fragments from an incomplete project.
Beautifully disciplined playing was sometimes marred by flurried or blurred detail – the humid warmth of a clammy spell is no friend to period instruments. The Musiciens’ sound, more soft-grained than British “authentic” bands produce (admittedly, a varied and historically wide-ranging category), underplayed the contrasts between Haydnesque geniality and Beethoven-inspired portentousness in the understandably derivative 16-year-old Schubert’s First Symphony, but was just right for the Fifth when the composer emerged as his own unique self at all of 19.
This was a lovingly moulded performance, bringing out the music’s own shape rather than imposing on it. The sharp calls to attention, the melting into a genial smile, were Schubertian, his masters gratefully acknowledged and discarded. Above all, the players caught the mood of wistfulness that underlies this sunlit piece, the haunting sense of sadness; the knowledge – though this is hindsight perhaps reading too much into a short life – that summer’s lease has too short a date.