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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


AVAILABILITY
Pristine Audio Direct (purchase or download)

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor Unfinished D759 (1822) (abridged)
New Queen's Hall Orchestra/Sir Henry Wood
rec. 13 February 1923
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 041 [12:43]

 

What was the most significant innovation in the history of recording? After listening to this Schubert Unfinished symphony recorded in 1923 I'd say the introduction of the microphone in 1925. This brought faithful reproduction of a wide range of instruments and the balance between them. The recording horn used before this was less sensitive and the art of recording lay in finding an appropriate compromise to convey the composer's intentions. For example, at the beginning of the second movement here, the bass part Schubert scored for double bass playing pizzicato and staccato is given to tuba, with rather pleasingly benign, rounded tone, but just staccato. An example of the difficulty of balance comes in the opening theme of the first movement, where the clarinets mask the oboes.

On the other hand, the small body of strings and a necessary avoidance of dense sonority at the climaxes produces an engaging transparency of texture and crisp rhythmic emphasis, comparable to period instrument recordings in recent times. A good example is the creative tension (from 3:32) between the sustained line of the clarinets, bassoons and horns against the rhythmic thrusts of the strings. Later (from 5:11) the dissonant woodwind chords show up piquantly.

In common with most pre-microphone recordings of symphonies, this one is abridged. I think Pristine Audio ought to indicate this clearly in the listing on its website and on the cover, though it is stated in the notes. These include the speculation 'perhaps few record companies at the time felt that few of their customers would have the patience to handle a longer recording'. Maybe, but I think the technical difficulties were a stronger factor. Complete recordings soon became the norm after 1926.

What do you do if you only have around 13 minutes to record the Unfinished symphony? You cover the main themes by providing the exposition, give a taster of the development and a fair amount of the recapitulation. This makes for an instructive listen alongside complete recordings because it brings home to you that it's the tension of the development that makes the recapitulation desirable and memorable. Weaken the tension and you blunt the satisfaction of its resolution.

What you actually get here, with reference to the Barenreiter Urtext, is

I: bars 1-114, 170-239, 245-257, 267-311, 322-329, 338-368 (end).
II: bars 1-103, 142-201, 237-268, 305-312 (end).

So this is patchwork, but the patches are sizeable: statistically 75% of the first movement and 64% of the second. Pristine Audio's notes undersell Wood in stating 'less than half the usual duration'. Beecham's 1937 complete recording takes 23:05.

I was curious what the sound quality of 1923 would be like and how different the playing would be to that of today. The sound quality I find agreeable. This is a tribute to the transfer and digital remastering. An effective balance has been found between clean tone and acceptable surface noise. The playing is quite different but, like the sound, you quickly adjust to it. More than that, it has an attractiveness which is hard to pinpoint. It's partly because of the transparency of texture I mentioned earlier. But in addition the playing is totally unaffected. Schubert's emphases emerge classically, without romantic accretions. The sober calm of the shortened first movement coda is effective without any special pleading.

I compared Wood with the earliest recording I have, the 1937 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (Dutton CDLX 7014, no longer available). In the first movement exposition (bars 1-114) Wood takes 2:30 whereas Beecham takes 3:28. In the second movement opening (bars 1-103) Wood takes 3:06, Beecham 4:05. This seems more a matter of approach to the work than concern about the length of disc sides.

The first movement is marked 'Allegro moderato'. Wood stresses the Allegro, Beecham the moderato. Wood achieves an energizing animation in the violins' running quavers accompanying the first theme. Beecham is more concerned with dramatic contrasts, but in comparison is open to the criticism of 'too much too soon'. It's good to hear Wood jolly along the famous second theme (1:00) where Beecham is leisurely. The portamento, or slides, in the first violins when they repeat this theme are a notable feature of Wood's but not Beecham's account. This portamento is entirely natural, not an applied 'effect'. The package from Wood is therefore one of kinetic energy and flexibility. Beecham is more disciplined but also stiffer.

The slow movement is marked 'Andante con moto'. Not that slow then. Wood stresses the con moto, Beecham the Andante. Wood reveals the melodies with a gentle naturalness. Beecham is more consciously cultivated and contemplative. With Wood there's more sense of spontaneity, of something evanescent being glimpsed in flight. Overall Beecham's is a rather formal but recognisably modern performance. Wood's isn't modern at all. The ambience, the attitudes and approach which inform it seem different. Is this closer to what Schubert would have experienced? Perhaps.

Interestingly, the notes point out 'Wood recorded this work twice', the first time being 3 July 1919. This 1923 replacement version was issued with the same catalogue numbers. The notes don't say Wood recorded the work a third time on 30 October 1933, unabridged, with the London Symphony Orchestra (Dutton 2CDAX 2002, no longer available).

Even though a précis of an interpretation, this makes for an extraordinary experience. It's available in 3 forms: an MP3 download, just a CD in an envelope, or a conventional CD cased with booklet, at a rising scale of prices.

Michael Greenhalgh


 



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