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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D944, The Great (1825-8) [59:04]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 10 June 2006. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD133 [59:04]
Experience Classicsonline

Often the spontaneity that results from a live performance more than compensates for any minor fluffs or less than ideal recording conditions. This is certainly the case here with the Philharmonia Orchestra on sparkling form for its Principal Guest Conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras. And this records just one performance, not an edit of a few. Accordingly it has absolute integrity of continuity. The opening horns’ theme is smooth but pacy, setting the tone for a sunny, smiling Andante introduction yet with a lithely expressive violas and cellos’ expansion. The grand ensuing tuttis are firm but the woodwind responses still genial and the progression never falters. The violins’ accompanying triplet figures are zesty and the crescendo leading into the Allegro main body of the movement (tr. 1 2:54) is exciting. The first theme is disciplined but not solid, so invigorating flares of sound are created. The second theme (3:48) is purposeful. The significant trombones’ presentation at 4:58 of a motif based on the horns’ theme in the introduction begins warm and soft against skipping strings. Everything evolves stimulatingly and the gradations of the long crescendi and climaxes are finely judged. The coda (13:55), marked faster, is not notably so but does begin pleasingly lightly while the return of the horns’ theme is admirably firm, ben marcato indeed. It’s just a touch more measured and the closing triplets on horns and trombones are splendidly emphatic.
 
I compared Mackerras’s 1987 studio recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin 5618062), the first recording on period instruments. Here are the comparative timings, the bracketed ones are the actual music time before applause
 
Timings
I
II
III
IV
Total
Signum 2006
15:58
14:08
13:40
15:16 (14:46)
59:04 (58:34)
Virgin 1987
16:24
13:58
13:38
15:25
59:35

The 1987 Mackerras, recorded in the more glowing ambience of the EMI Abbey Road Studio 1 than the 2006 Queen Elizabeth Hall, has a more stately manner in the introduction while the Allegro is similarly a more majestic, formal parade. The trombone entries are more sombrely pointed. The elements of the build-up in the development are admirably clear and after its climax there’s an appreciably reflective becalming to the recapitulation. In the coda the return of the opening theme is presented at a spanking pace without change of tempo, which I prefer. Overall, however, the 2006 account is more animated with more emphasis in the introduction on melody and flow, more energy in the Allegro, a more chirrupy second theme, a more dramatic though less clearly analytical development. The recapitulation has a softer focus, stealing in quietly, almost unobtrusively at 10:26. In the coda the tiered build ups have more edge. But the approach is essentially the same. The period trombones are more penetrating, the modern ones blend more smoothly with the other brass, but Mackerras obtains precise articulation from both orchestras. 
 
The slow movement (tr. 2) comes across as a journey of different moods and reflections more clearly in 2006 than I can remember having heard before. Whereas the 1987 opening is stealthy and followed by an attractively curvaceous oboe solo, the 2006 opening is more inviting with a more carefree, less knowing oboe, yet with a momentarily tender later, quieter element before a brusque very loud tutti interruption colourfully delivered here. The 2006 tuttis are more boisterous than in 1987. The second theme (3:12) is more homely, with more relaxed warmth than in 1987 and its tendency to a more rapt mood is crystallized in a horns’ duet (5:08), slightly broader than in 1987, in which Mackerras seems almost able to suspend time. The return of the opening theme is transformed into something comelier now with first violins’ dancing accompaniment but the tutti retorts have still greater vigour with added exchange of fanfares between trumpets and horns, grimmer and more exciting than in 1987, before a different suspension of time, a stunning and frightening silence at 8:39. The ensuing theme for cellos derived from the opening theme is a soberly expressive response, sketching more eloquent feeling and wistfulness than the more simply mournful 1987, before a chastened and thoughtful return of that opening. In the meantime, however, Mackerras has fully savoured the delicious violins’ pizzicato from 11:06 below the woodwind melodic focus. This sensitivity to Schubert’s varied and added detail as the movement evolves much enhances your experience of it.
 
The third movement almost becomes an anthology of dance. To its Scherzo (tr. 3) Mackerras brings a vigorous dance to start with the strings’ proposal and cheery woodwind response, but from 0:23 a graceful mini waltz tag with violins tailed by cellos in sinuously supple articulation. In the second section at 1:36 a nonchalant waltz snippet is pitted more directly against the clodhopping elements before a much freer and airier one from 1:50 and from 3:10 the earlier mini waltz returns at its most dainty and luxuriant. The whole has a vibrant pulse and again finely graded dynamics, not just a matter of interpretive exactness but relished as a key element of the life of the music.
 
There’s a sense of sumptuousness and greater glow about the Trio which, while at the same basic pulse, seems more measured because of its slower rhythms and in particular absence of the Scherzo’s running quavers. The Trio is the most extended waltz with the sunshine created by light brass backing. And Mackerras’s scrupulous attention to dynamics shows gentleness to be at its heart. Another lovely detail enjoyed is the double basses’ chromatic descent combined with crescendo and then sudden piano (8:07). Again this 2006 Mackerras has more liveliness, more feel of movement and atmosphere about it. The 1987 is more a neat distillation of the dance elements and transparent evolution of the movement with the short waltzes more laid-back. Indeed you’re more aware in the second section of the Scherzo of the paring down to basic rhythm before the return of the mini waltz.
 
From the outset of the finale (tr. 4) taken at a true Allegro vivace Mackerras enjoys the contrast of exuberant brass and feathery violins, the latter nevertheless soon starting a great swirl of activity in triplets. The 2006 opening has more bounce and weight and there’s more of a feel of sheer flight when the triplets start yet the 1987 opening has an attractive fizz and whirligig abandon in its lighter but penetrating articulation. The second theme, the one beginning with four identical notes (1:41), is blithely presented in 2006 by woodwind and horns against fetchingly skittering first violins and violas and Mackerras makes the whole seem to evolve so naturally, again by carefully observing its tiering of dynamics. From the Philharmonia this is both a festive and virtuoso display with more swing than the smoother OAE here, though they find a joyous lilt. The quotation on clarinets at the beginning of the development of Beethoven’s Ode to joy (7:25) is smooth yet rather rarefied but the following crescendo soon finds the brass pounding away at Schubert’s repeated note motif. It’s the strings who have the last spotlight on this and their stomping sforzando Cs from 13:47, backed by horns and bassoons, are splendidly firm without being stodgy and again weightier than in 1987, though in elan there’s little to choose between the two performances. 1987 has an attractively lucid presentation of the recapitulation in terms of its place in the scheme of things, in 2006 the emphasis is rather on its irresistible energy.
 
In sum the 1987 Mackerras is clearer for studying the elements of the work and its structure, but this 2006 Mackerras gives you a more rounded experience of the whole symphony, its effectiveness, life and colour. Here is everything you’d expect from Indian summer Mackerras: lively, rhythmically crisp, melodically well shaped, precise in dynamics and with all repeats observed except, as normal practice, not those in the Scherzo da capo. The recording is fresh and clear, very bright in the brass but not glaring. Only when the music stops do you become aware of the audience. You are grateful for this but even more for a performance of consummate skill.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 


 


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