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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 8 in B minor, D.759 "Unfinished" [22:14]
Symphony no. 9 in C, D.944 "The Great" [46:15]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (no.8), London Symphony Orchestra (no.9)/Bruno Walter
Recorded 29th-31st May 1936 in Vienna (no.8), 11th-12th September 1938 in London (no.9)

Many years ago I heard Walter’s "Unfinished" with the original 78s played on a smallish gramophone and was struck how well it sounded. Rose-tinted spectacles? The sound here is imperfectly focused with some unpleasantly strident tuttis. Have Living Era tried to find too much range in it? But never mind, if I didn’t have those memories I would have accepted this as reasonable for the time. Interestingly, there is little apparent difference between Vienna and London, not only in the sound quality but in the characteristics and standard of the orchestral playing – tribute to Walter’s ability to get not just good discipline but the style and sound he wanted from an orchestra.

Walter’s Schubert contains a few surprises, more of them good than not. The first movement of the "Unfinished" is remarkably tough, with powerful climaxes and little inclination to dawdle in second subject territory, loving though the playing is. The second movement is more problematic. The opening two bars, with their pizzicato basses, are so incredibly slow that one wonders if he’ll ever reach the end, but then the next two bars are taken at a quite flowing tempo, then slow again for the next pizzicato bars, and so on. It seems that Walter is working out on the spur of the moment the tempo which suits him best, and this lack of structural discipline seriously detracts from his often revelatory exploration of inner lines and textures. By the recapitulation he has settled into a tempo and the sensible thing would have been to go back and start again. As it is, we are left with a flawed vision of his deeply felt, if unduly valedictory (Schubert didn’t know the symphony was going to end here) interpretation of this movement.

The first movement of the "Great" C major also has an unsettling moment. After the usual (unmarked) accelerando at the end of the introduction, the first subject enters at an absurdly pompous slow tempo, speeds up for the wind answer and then settles down into a quite swift, lightly dancing tempo which, rather surprisingly for those days, is maintained through the second subject. The coda is also remarkably straight. There is a drop in tempo at the beginning of the exposition; this would have been a new side and it looks as though Walter had some difficulty in picking up exactly the same tempo as before after a forced halt (remember, in those days everything was recorded in four-minute takes). The second movement seem to me pretty well ideal in its unforced, relaxed yet forward-moving pacing. The Scherzo is extremely interesting for its continual subtle adjustments to the pace; ultimately I prefer this movement to have the symphonic drive which Boult (for example) gave it, but the gentle Viennese charm of Walter has its own attractions. Walter’s finale is lively and fresh without attempting the sort of incandescence which Toscanini achieved here and which Ančerl and Boult also essay.

Ultimately, I think these performances give us an interesting peep into the past rather than unmatchable classics. Walter’s interpretations of these symphonies can obviously be heard in more recent sound, so this is not quite the essential resuscitation it looks. There is a good note by David Patmore.

Christopher Howell



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