BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82 (1813) [27:23]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D 125 (1814-15) [30:57]
Symphony No. 3 in D major D 200 (1815) [20:29]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 “Tragic” (1816) [34:07]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D 485 (1816) [28:43]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D 589 (1817-18) [31:39]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 “Unfinished” (1822) [26:28]
Grand Duo in C major, D 812 (“Symphony” after Sonata in C major for piano duet, op. post. 140, orchestrated by Joseph Joachim) (1824, orch.1855) [43:57]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944 “Great” (1825-26) [61:47]
Rosamunde: Overture, D 644 “The Magic Harp” (1823) [10:12]
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado
rec. Schubertsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, August 1986 (No. 2); Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, December 1986 (No. 5), June 1987 (No. 6), December 1987 (Nos. 8 and 9, Rosamunde); Watford Town Hall, London, August 1987 (Nos. 1 and 3, Grand Duo); Palacio de la musica y congresos, December 1987 (No. 4).
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8687 [5 CDs: 58:40 + 57:54 + 60:43 + 70:42 + 72:05]
The appearance of these CDs welcomes back to the catalogue this highly regarded set of Schubert symphonies. The performances purportedly utilized Schubert’s autograph scores for the first time. Actually, only Symphonies Nos. 4, 8, and 9 are listed in the booklet as being first performances of the autograph manuscripts. The editions here initially raised some controversy over whether they were really as Schubert left them. There was some suggestion that the scores might have been edited by the musicologist and Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) member Stefano Mollo, who researched the autograph manuscripts. Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the complete symphonies with the Concertgebouw for Warner on Teldec some five years later than Abbado. He also based his performances on the manuscripts, but there are differences between his versions and those of Abbado, primarily in the Ninth Symphony.
The Harnoncourt set was reissued on Warner Classics and enthusiastically reviewed here by Michael Cookson in October 2005. I refer you to his review for some real insights into these works. As a basis of comparison here, I am also using the Harnoncourt set - one of my favorites in this music - as well as some individual accounts of a few of the symphonies. Before delving into individual works, I can state right off that the Abbado accounts remain formidable among the competition and now at a reduced price could easily be recommended as ones first choice for a complete set of the symphonies. Now to comments on individual works:
Both Abbado and Harnoncourt have the measure of the first three symphonies. To generalize, Abbado’s tempos tend to be slightly slower than those of Harnoncourt. This is most noticeable in the third movements. Where Harnoncourt treats them more like scherzos and brings out their Beethovenian elements, Abbado sticks more closely to the models of Haydn and Mozart and retains the quality of minuets. The main advantage here is that he does not have to slow down for the trio sections, whereas Harnoncourt definitely does and this can be jarring at times. I like the warmth of Abbado’s recordings, but the clarity of inner parts as well. Harnoncourt, by comparison, can seem a little austere in his avoidance of vibrato and other period performance traits. I don’t want to make too much of this, however, for both conductors are convincing in their own ways. They are more evenly matched in the delightful Symphony No. 3 and do not slight the dance elements in this work. Whereas I have a slight preference for Abbado in the first two symphonies I have difficulty in deciding which to go for in the case of the Third; though Abbado’s tempos in all four movements seem ideal to me. I have no hesitation as concerns the Symphony No. 4, the so-called “Tragic”. Here Harnoncourt’s faster tempos pay off, as he brings out the Beethovenian influences. This work seems modeled more on Beethoven than the earlier ones, and Harnoncourt captures the dramatic elements very well, as he also does for the delicious dance in the finale’s second theme. Abbado on his own is also good, but his more deliberate tempos, especially the third movement minuet/scherzo, sound rather heavy-handed.
The Symphony No. 5 is the only one before the “Unfinished” to have achieved a significant degree of popularity, although the Third is also gaining in this area. The Fifth is one of Schubert’s most perfectly formed works, even if it harks back to its Haydn and Mozart models. With its light scoring, without trumpets, clarinets or timpani, it is the perfect vehicle for a chamber orchestra, and Abbado does it full justice. One could argue that his first movement is too fast, though I have quickly acclimatized to it. Harnoncourt’s slower tempo may see more apt, but his frequent diminuendos on phrase endings become a little tiresome. These are minor cavils and in honesty neither effaces memories of the greatest versions of the past, for example, those of Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner. Likewise, in the Rossinian “Little C major” Symphony No.6, it is hard to avoid the memory of Sir Thomas Beecham’s wonderful performance, even if the “corrupt” edition he used did not contain significant material particularly in the finale. Of the two modern recordings discussed here, I prefer Abbado’s by a wide margin largely due to the ludicrously slow tempo Harnoncourt takes for the finale.
With the “Unfinished” (No. 8) and the “Great C major” (No. 9), the field of competition is much greater, since these symphonies are some of the most popular in the repertoire. While listeners have their favorites - mine include Carlos Kleiber and Bruno Walter for the Eighth and Karajan and Szell for the Ninth - Abbado can rival the best and Harnoncourt has his admirers, too. Abbado’s account of the Eighth is dramatic and ardently romantic, bringing out the warmth in the symphony. His approach is weightier than those of Harnoncourt or Kleiber, but not to the same degree as Karajan’s which is too heavy and deliberate. Kleiber’s is arguably the most subtle of these and perhaps more classical than romantic. Abbado is even more romantic in the Ninth, employing a good deal of rubato in many places. For example, he slows down for the reprise of the opening theme when it returns at the end of the first movement - not to the degree that Bernstein did in his recording with the Concertgebouw, but appreciably more than one is accustomed to now. However, Abbado’s is a powerful account that works despite - or because of? - the liberties he takes. Neither Harnoncourt nor my favorite, Karajan - I prefer his later EMI account to the earlier one on DG - slows here. In fact, it seems to me that Harnoncourt actually speeds up. Overall, Abbado, like Karajan, is more rugged and incisive in this symphony than Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt’s approach is smoother, less articulated, and more classical. Where Abbado raises questions, however, concerns the changes he makes in the score itself. These occur in the second movement where the oboe phrase later in the first subject has added eighth notes (0:52-1:02 and repeated later) and in the scherzo an additional four bars with the brass prominent (2:13-2:15 and again later in the movement). Supposedly these additions were in the original manuscript and later removed by Brahms for an edition of the works. Likewise Brahms was thought to have misinterpreted Schubert’s accent marks as diminuendo signs. Harnoncourt omits the extra notes and bars from his account, though he also based it on the autograph score. The first time one hears them they can seem a little jarring, for those very familiar with the symphony. On repetition, though, they do not detract all that much from Abbado’s performance. The orchestra’s playing is so beautiful here, as it is elsewhere in the set, that one can easily forgive any perceived aberrations in the edition used. Note that Harnoncourt, and as I recall, Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic before him, ends the symphony with a diminuendo on the final chord. I have always found this a bit strange and underwhelming. Neither Karajan nor Abbado follow this practice and hold the final chord forte to the end.
The five-disc set comes with two bonuses. The first is Joachim’s orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo which at one time was referred to as the “Gastein Symphony”. It was thought to be Schubert’s “lost” Seventh Symphony and makes for a substantial addition. While it is well orchestrated and sounds like mature Schubert, it does go on a bit and can seem repetitious. Still it contains some memorable material. The second subject in the first movement has one of those inimitable Schubert melodies which switches from major to minor and back again. It is rather similar to its equivalent in the first movement of Luciano Berio’s Rendering that is based on sketches of Schubert unfinished Tenth Symphony. The finale reminds me of both the Ninth Symphony and Rosamunde. Speaking of the latter, as the second bonus, the set concludes with the popular Overture to Rosamunde, the “Magic Harp”, which is one of Schubert’s most inspired creations. This would appear to be the same recording as that in Abbado’s superb account of the complete incidental music to Rosamunde, also on DG.
In conclusion, though one may criticize this or that detail, I can recommend this DG set highly. Even if you have Harnoncourt’s, Böhm’s, Marriner’s, Wand’s or one of Colin Davis’s versions, or are collecting Jonathan Nott’s ongoing cycle, Abbado’s will still provide you with hours of truly wonderful music-making and a fresh perspective on these masterpieces.
Abbado’s winning set of Schubert symphonies returns at low cost.