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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82 [25.35]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200 [24.32]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 “Unfinished” [28.17]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
Rec. Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg; Symphonies 1, 3: March 2003, Symphony 8: December 2003. Co-production with Bavarian Radio, Munich. DDD.
TUDOR 7141 [79.25]

 

 

Many will have found Jonathan Nott’s all but total musical exile from his homeland a source of frustration based on previous recordings that largely focus on contemporary music. In these he shows that he has skill and things to say. However, being stuck in Germany - rarely a thing to be suffered musically - he has experience of Rattle’s Berlin Phil (if rumours of the malaise are true, would they tempted to swap one Englishman for another when the time comes?), and amongst others the Bamberg Symphony. It’s good to have the opportunity to hear the Bambergers on disc again: their heyday was with Jonel Perlea in the 1960s and 1970s, and Horst Stein in the 1980s, when they were also experienced Schubert players.

Nott has claimed that Schubert’s First Symphony has something Mozartian about it. If this is the case he does not bring it out successfully enough. The whole thing is too four-square for my taste, with overly emphasised rhythms. That is not to say there are not nice things in the playing; there are. The brass are well caught at the very opening, the second movement has nice wind textures at work (c. 2.30 onwards) but the strings underneath are too self-conscious. Things are continued and improved somewhat in the Menuetto, though I still feel the strings are too hard, despite a generally well judged tempo.

It’s as if things have to be stated rather than suggested in this interpretation, though perhaps some of what I find could be down to the precision of the recording too.  The same feeling pervades the third symphony to a large extent. The opening Adagio maestoso is spacious, with impressive unison, though weaknesses are exposed when the music reduces to one or two lines.  There are again pleasing textures in the winds, but Nott again proves he is not a natural Schubert conductor by his phrasing and failing to make the movement gel.  Being the most conventionally classical of all the symphonies, this feeling does come across well in the Allegretto, which contrary to the opening movement is convincingly paced and voiced. However it is maybe lacking in some spontaneity in the playing that orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic would naturally bring to the movement.

The Menuetto again suffers slightly from the forward timpani, leading rhythms to be emphasised more than they might need. The closing Presto vivace is taken at a genuine presto tempo with some lightness of touch that gains character with the brass entries. More than elsewhere in this symphony the building of dynamic and texture seems natural and relatively unforced.

Moving to the later unfinished symphony, this is the work that most listeners will be familiar with. Naturally the main draw too, it understandable for Tudor to include it in volume one of this already recorded complete cycle.  The Allegro moderato is darkly announced by the basses, although the transition to the main theme is taken too literally and the contrasting chords seem less abrupt than I had expected Nott to make them given his style with the earlier works. He still has difficulty in making the contrasting music seem entirely natural to him, and where any dynamic emphasis is marked this can be overdone, which means that the lower strings take longer to ‘bite’ on their entries. Where chords are held these might have been less held, more a comma in the argument than a full stop placed mid-sentence.

The Andante con moto starts averagely and degenerates at times to near crudeness in the tone of the strings when under pressure, added to as ever by over-emphasised timpani and forceful brass. In quieter passages the music is in danger of losing its thread, partially due to the extreme pianissimo it is played at, and from there the movement never really recovers.

The fragmentary Allegro that follows should be treated as a curiosity. Cutting out after 22 seconds, this rather uninspired Ländler goes against the previous two movements. Despite working on it further in piano reduction, Schubert’s instinct that it would not work was well-founded. I hope that the trend does not develop, as it did with Bruckner’s 9th, of giving us probable orchestrated endings to the work.

It’s a release for me that does not deliver. This is despite a conductor of interest (in other repertoire) and an orchestra on decent form.  Having listened and thought about this long and hard, I conclude that this is Schubert playing for 2005, and as such is almost as bad as the worst of the authentic brigade. What is lacking is an understanding of Schubert as a composer of his time in innate stylistic and musical terms.

To make the music something it is not, to push against the grain, is the huge error that mistakes emphasis for interpretation. The responsibility rests primarily with Nott, though as suggested, the recording could have contributed slightly to this view.  A controversial statement I know. I await the outcry of disapproval, given their much anticipated August residency in Edinburgh. There at least the repertoire plays more to Nott’s forte of the contemporary. Might, I wonder, the simultaneous release ‘Schubert Epilogue’ be more successful somehow because of the contemporary input?

As for what is to follow, I shall be steering well clear, though no doubt others will eagerly snap it up. Having heard this a few of times, I rather fancy silence, and therein to anticipate a return to Böhm or anyone with Schubert in their being and the ability to draw playing accordingly.  It is strange for me to feel this way, but the high art of music arouses strong emotions.

Evan Dickerson

 

 

 

 



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