Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759 "Unfinished" (1822) [23:51] ¹
Symphony No. 9 in C, D.944 "The Great" (1825-28) [55:17] ²
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler¹
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler ²
rec. January 1950, Musikvereinssaal, Vienna (No.8) and November-December 1951,. Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin (No.9)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111344 [79:07]

Sometimes I feel like a rank and filer from the 24th Regiment, 2nd Warwickshires, holed up in Rorke’s Drift. Just when you think you’ve beaten back Cetewayo’s finest, more of them appear on the horizon ready to sweep down and try to cut you to ribbons. Well, if I feel like that then it must be Furtwängler Time. And this latest release contains an all-Schubert programme, commercial recordings from 1950-51 with his two orchestras of choice; in Berlin, and in Vienna. As might have been anticipated multiple performances exist, given over the years.

My most recent encounter with the Unfinished and the Great came recently via Audite’s big live RIAS box set - two performances of the former and one of the latter. Before that there was the wartime Great on Tahra. And before that there was a Melodiya transfer of that same 1942 live Berlin traversal but its transfer was palpably inferior to the Tahra. As one can detect none of these performances is quite germane to the present release, but represent the reservoir of performances that indicate a swelling or lessening of expressive weight in relation to the chosen repertoire.

The Unfinished of January 1950 was recorded in Vienna. His other recordings numbered Berlin in 1948, 1952, 1953 and 1954, and Turin in 1952. We therefore lack a wartime performance against which to measure and contrast the post-war sequence. I am sure it would have been instructive, and also that the degree of trenchancy evinced by all his other wartime inscriptions would have been reflected in this one too. The result however is that the Unfinished is, in his hands, a matter of relativity, or degree. There are no really explosive differences between the long run of surviving documents. But what is certain is the intensely structure-conscious approach that Furtwängler takes, his use of sometimes fairly extreme dynamics and the powerful contrastive moments he sculpts, and their use as often oppositional blocks, to drive on the symphonic argument. It means that the work is more contained than one might perhaps expect, not as eruptive or quasi-operatic in the second movement as it can often become.

As for the Great we have the 1942, the Vienna 1943 and 1953, and Berlin 1950 and 1953. The 1942 performance is an example of incendiary interpretative freedom, a lacerating and intense performance. The 1951 Berlin reading is still strong, with sinewy brass, and a warmer sound from the strings than the engineers could impart to their Viennese counterparts in the Eighth. There are no obviously discursive or disruptive metrical displacements. Instead the fiery outbursts of the slow movement find their own natural vehemence. The powerful rhetoric is cast in melancholic blocks, and it’s in this context that one should judge the Scherzo which is more relaxed than one might otherwise expect. He ratchets the tension in the finale, though it’s not as driven as either the wartime or the 1953 Berlin performances.

The transfers are up to the expected standard, and the notes are helpful. As for how many performances of this repertoire you need, that’s up to you, though I should end by saying that the conductor’s surviving Schubert repertoire is amazingly slim; these two symphonies and music from Rosamunde.

Jonathan Woolf