One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             



Complete Set 5CDs 2564605322 around £15

Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

also available separately as indicated

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Yehudi Menuhin
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D.82 (1813)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D.417 ‘Tragic’ (1816)
WARNER APEX 2564 60527-2

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D.125 (1815)
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D.859 (1818)
WARNER APEX 2564 60529-2

Symphony No. 3 in D major, D.200 (1815)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D.485 (1816)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)
WARNER APEX 2564 60530-2

Symphony No. 9 in C major, D.944 ‘Great’ (1827)
WARNER APEX 2564 60531-2

Rec. 20–29 Jan 1997, Studio 1, Polish Radio, Warsaw
Complete Set 5CDs 2564605322

The Schubert symphonies are a further manifestation of an extraordinary genius. The earlier examples, Nos. 1-6 that is, are on the scale of Mozart rather than of Beethoven. No problem with that of course, nor is their mastery in doubt. But we have to remember that these supremely fresh masterworks are the product of a teenage composer, and modelled on the Viennese classical style of the previous generation. In due course, Schubert would develop his own powerfully unique voice in the Unfinished Symphony (No. 8) and the Great C major (No. 9).

The Symphony No. 1 is in some respects the most interesting of all the early symphonies, if for no other reason that it was composed in 1813 when Schubert was a mere fifteen years old. No wonder he aimed to emulate the great traditions of his native city. But in itself that observation has its limitations, since we value the music for what it gives us today rather than for its historical interest. And it gives us rewards in plenty in this excellent performance.

Yehudi Menuhin built a close and stimulating relationship with the Sinfonia Varsovia, whose collaboration with him was as substantial as it was significant. They toured throughout Europe and gave remarkable performances of the central repertoire; as well as the Schubert symphonies their Beethoven was noteworthy too.

The standard of playing is excellent and the recorded sound is as good as the recent vintage would lead us to expect. Everything sounds nicely in its place, and there is atmosphere as well as clarity. While this is not what you would call ‘demonstration class’ it is more than acceptable, and just right for this music.

For an artist working in the later stages of an illustrious career, Menuhin shows some unexpected stylistic qualities. Above all, he adopts remarkably lively tempi, as though he had just been studying the music with Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner. The allegros are genuinely quick, while the andantes move along too. In the Symphony No. 2 there is a well shaped phrasing of the slow introduction, creating the tensions out of which the Allegro vivace makes its spirited presence felt. In this work the Minuet movement is remarkably terse, failing to break the three minute barrier, but if anything the effect is intensified as a result. This remarkably exciting piece concludes with another ‘quicker than usual’ movement, at tempo Allegro vivace. Menuhin and his players seem to relish the challenge.

The Symphony No. 3 is another lively work, though the Adagio maestoso invites a portentous approach that never materializes. Thereafter, in fact, the slowest music comes in at tempo Allegretto in the second movement. Menuhin shapes this with great skill and sensitivity, so that the symphony as a whole does have the natural balances, that ebb and flow, so essential to its general scheme.

The so-called Tragic Symphony, No. 4 in C minor, does not attain the intensity its portentous title invites. Whether this is down to the conductor, the orchestra or the composer is open to question. Again the most romantically expressive music comes at the beginning in the slow introduction, but thereafter the expressive style has more in common with its fellow early symphonies than with imageries of tragedy. While Menuhin’s performance has much to commend it, there is more intensity to be found from that great Schubertian Karl Böhm (DG).

The Symphony No. 5 lies at the opposite extreme. Composed during 1816, its character reveals much of that freshness and charm so typical of Schubert the song-writer, as well as an abundant vivacity and a clear sense of purpose. The orchestra is smaller, thus placing even more emphasis upon lyricism, since there are no trumpets and drums and their dramatic insistence. Although the music has its own distinctive personality, it remains easy to place it in the context of the classical style, and in particular the inheritance of Mozart. The lyrical key of B flat produces a more intimate manner than the earlier symphonies. The development of the material is also a model of conciseness.

Menuhin keen phrasing and alert tempi emphasise that while the first movement is elegant and graceful, the mood remains equivocal, fluctuating between warmth and severity. The Andante is beautifully song-like, whereas the so-called minuet has a certain toughness about it. With such vitality in the attractive finale, this is one of the most successful performances in this already appealing set.

Like the Fourth Symphony, the Sixth is also a tricky piece to bring off. The challenge surrounds the requirement to articulate the tricky rhythmic contour of the first movement's principal material at a suitable tempo, that is at once lively and sensitively phrased. A most successful performance on CD comes from Günter Wand (RCA-BMG), who manages to achieve this demanding balancing of opposing forces, with beguiling results. Not that Menuhin fails to achieve similar standards, however, and he is excellent in the remaining movements, with some very pleasing string playing in particular.

The temptation with the celebrated ‘Unfinished’ Symphony is to think that had he lived longer, Schubert would have completed it. The worthy attempts of various people to provide the two remaining movements, have encouraged this erroneous view. The truth of the matter is that Schubert wrote this piece in 1822, more than five years before his tragically early death. Since the music was not played and was not known during his lifetime, no-one can be sure whether or not he intended to turn it into a conventional four-movement piece. No matter, since what we have is so wonderfully effective on its own terms, and Schubert evidently thought so too. Here the orchestra is larger, the textures richer, the manner more romantic, dramatic and forceful.

Menuhin and Sinfonia Varsovia acquit themselves in fine style. Again it is the sheer verve of the playing that comes over most strongly. The rhythmic drive has terrific power, though the brooding quality of Claudio Abbado (DGG) is missing. Nor is it intended, however.

The final symphony (No. 7 was started but never materialized) was composed before Schubert’s final year of 1828. But like the larger works of that year, such as the Mass in E flat major and the String Quintet, it has a broad and expressive scope that mark it as a true product of Schubert’s final phase. While it is dangerous to write in such terms of a composer who died in his early thirties, such is the scope of Schubert’s achievement that such words remind us of the nature of his achievement.

Perhaps it is in the Ninth Symphony that the greatest range of contrasts can be observed among recorded performances. Menuhin has a strongly conceived view of the whole symphony, including the delivery of a truly classical sense of momentum and line. Thus the first movement’s Andante opening is boldly assertive in its vitality, a characteristic that is confirmed by the arrival of an Allegro that is more unequivocal than its ‘non troppo’ marking might suggest. The performance grows in stature as it proceeds, and does so because it remains true to Schubert’s large-scale vision. There is vitality, as ever, but also attention to detail in matters of phrasing and dynamic. Perhaps it is the reconciliation of these aspects of performance that make this Schubert collection such an attractive bargain.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by John Phillips


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.