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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Complete Symphonies

CD1 [78'17"]
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D82 (1811)
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D200 (1814)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)
CD2 [67'39"]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D125 (1812)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D417 ‘Tragic’ (1816)
CD3 [61'44"]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816)
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D589 (1818)
CD4 [62'02"]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 ‘Great’ (1826)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis

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Forty years ago, as a teenager eager to hear anything and everything, I was easily influenced by anyone who could provide me with shortcuts to the greatest music, and divert me away from trivia, or anything which could wait another day. So I grew up with the notion that Beethoven wrote symphonies, but Schubert didn’t - not even when he wrote symphonies!

One still hears these arguments peddled. Schubert’s symphonies (they say…) suffer from echoes of Beethoven, slow harmonic tempi, oversized lyric building blocks, and under-engineered nuts and bolts holding everything together. But the same can be said of Bruckner, who, they might say…, made a virtue of such ‘weaknesses’. And when, in the B minor Symphony, Schubert so memorably combines solo flute, oboe and clarinet in unison to intone the opening theme, his writing for orchestra is considered impractical. Whereas Mahler, using exactly the same combination in the final Adagio of his Third Symphony, is ingenious!

Sitting through the complete set of finished or probably-finished symphonies, as one can do here, enables us to make a more objective assessment. No. 1 is the work of a boy-composer growing up: it’s full of Mozartian and Haydnesque charm and manners, as well as exaggerated teenage gestures. The voice of Beethoven - which Schubert tried but found impossible to ignore - can be heard in No. 2. This is most especially the case in the flattened seventh and quick move to the subdominant in the opening bars - straight out of the Prometheus overture! It can also be heard in the explosive pianissimo-fortissimo outburst in the finale’s coda - positively ‘ripped’ from the same place - even the same context - in Beethoven’s own Second Symphony. In the nicely-proportioned No. 3 - which I consider the finest piece before No. 8 - the young Schubert finds his symphonic feet and speaks with a new-found confidence. No. 4 reverts to the neo-Beethovenian mood of No. 2, and the same structural weaknesses and mismanaged resources. The perfectly-crafted No. 5, with unmistakeable echoes of Mozart’s great G minor, again harkens back to earlier models. And the rather faceless No. 6 shows clear signs of Rossini’s influence.

The Unfinished may have become a pop-piece, but is it not one of music’s most noble masterpieces? What other piece for orchestra of this vintage shows such richness of harmonic palette, such range of orchestral colour and imagination, such sense of sheer symphonic scale and ‘distance’? We can of course answer these questions - let’s not forget Beethoven’s Ninth, Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Symphonie Fantastique - but we do tend to underestimate the originality of Schubert’s conception.

And then there’s the Ninth, whose ‘heavenly length’ reflects not only its considerable number of minutes and seconds, but also the vast range of human emotions, textural devices, instrumental effects and the harmonic mystery tours it encompasses. Surely, in the incomparable Great C major, Schubert - by virtue of doing it his way - embraced the previously-unembraceable Beethoven?

Ever since his classic Beethoven No. 7 with Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic, back in 1960, Colin Davis has been unimpeachable in this kind of repertoire. Although his complete Beethoven cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden (for Philips) suffered from a general lack of momentum, and a middle-aged spread of orchestral tone, this Schubert set brings out all the playfulness of the early symphonies, as well as the warmth and lyricism of No. 8, and the boldness and majesty of No. 9.

It’s true that Kleiber’s Third has even more youthful energy; Beecham’s Fifth offers even more grace and lightness of touch; various Eighths (from Wand to Mackerras) make rather more of the music’s drama; and both Solti’s and Gardiner’s Vienna Ninths are - certainly superficially - more dynamic, more exciting. But Davis has the measure of this music. And, as well as attending to every expressive detail, his pacing and placing of the great moments results in a strong sense of symphonic structure. Schubert has No. greater advocate!

A word about Davis’s orchestra. In an age when orchestral membership tends to change from day to day, and of course members determine an orchestra’s character, it is good to savour the unsurpassed beauty of sound and unanimity of purpose a pedigree ensemble like the Staatskapelle Dresden - the world’s oldest orchestra? - offers us. Thanks to RCA’s truthful recording, their playing brings joy into our living rooms.

This is a uniformly strong ‘library’ set, and I urge you to hear it.

Peter J Lawson

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