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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major (The Great) (1825-8)
 Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 8-11 June 2005, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
 EMI CLASSICS 2285332 [57.43]
Experience Classicsonline

There was a time when one expected recordings of Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn and so on to be played by a full-scale modern symphony orchestra. That all started to change around 1988 as far as Schubert's Ninth was concerned when Sir Roger Norrington recorded it with the London Classical Players for EMI Reflexe. Apart from the size of the band (about 60) and the so called period instruments producing a pitch much higher than we were used to Norrington took less than an hour over the piece including, quite deliberately, all of the repeats. Gradually, since then, if a 'great orchestra' has recorded works such as this the conductor has been what is known as "historically informed". Rattle as a young man in the late 1980s was fully aware of these developments and where possible has tried to adopt them.
 
I listened again to Norrington's recording before listening to Rattle's version. It's interesting that the tempi are very similar. Rattle knocks almost a minute off Norrington's time; this is especially true of the second movement compared with the older generation of maestros like Karl Böhm. Also one should note that Rattle is using strongly accented bowing in and on the strings as in the opening of the Scherzo. Note too the very clearly articulated brass and the delicate woodwind work, although a little distantly recorded. The effect is especially delightful in the second movement which seems to be not a million miles from Schubert's incidental music to 'Rosamunde' written in 1823. It all depends on whether you are of the opinion that Schubert's Ninth marks the end of the classical period - which is what Norrington prefers - or the first symphony at the beginning of the Romantic. In this we leave aside Beethoven who seems to straddle both classical and Romantic eras and yet is of all time. Despite his stylistic awareness Rattle falls most certainly into this latter category. Richard Osborne in his interesting accompanying essay develops this further and even alludes to Bruckner. He quotes Schumann as saying "years must pass before the work will be thoroughly made at home in Germany". I certainly cannot be the first listener to hear a little Brahms in Schubert's slow movement and a soupcon of Dvorák in the Trio section of the third.
 
Of the length of the work it is well known that Schumann, who excitedly discovered the manuscript, described it as "heavenly" ( taking you on "a journey from which no-one returns"). For those who are coming fairly new to the work Schubert's sense of development coupled with his use of repetition can be a problem. Rattle overcomes this by keeping up the interest by coaxing the orchestra into constantly varied and new phrasing or dynamics. The playing and ensemble are never less than outstanding.
 
The Berlin Phil still uses much vibrato and they are a large ensemble. The timps do not use the now standard hard sticks which we all expect to hear nowadays. There appears to be almost too much orchestral control and at times a lack of spontaneity. Sometimes there is quite fussy phrasing which will pall on repeated hearings. It's almost as if Rattle, not having tackled Schubert for many years, has been somewhat overawed and has tried too hard.
 
Undoubtedly Simon Rattle will want to record the work again one day. However, having heard this recording right through you can't help but feel that you have gained a firm grasp of the work's architecture. Along the way you have been treated to some marvellous orchestral playing. It's a journey after which life can never be quite the same again.
 
Gary Higginson

 


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