Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D485 [29:32]
Symphony No. 6 in C, D589 [33:19]
Symphony No. 7 (No. 8) in B minor, “Unfinished”, D759 [24:47]
Symphony No. 8 (No. 9) in C, “Great”, D944 [51:32]
Camerata Academica des Mozarteums Salzburg/Sandor Végh
rec. dates and venues not provided
PHOENIX EDITION PE437 [62:51 + 76:19]

Sandor Végh is not the likeliest of artists to receive the star treatment, with his odd facial expression, multitude of chins, disheveled hair, and habit of conducting with his spectacles, but his name here is printed larger than Schubert’s, and his photograph graces the cover. Végh is not the star here because someone thinks he is photogenic: rather, this release is a testament to the importance of his artistic legacy. The longtime violinist from the Végh Quartet put over five decades of service into the world of classical music before his death in 1997, and these performances of the four last Schubert symphonies are a testament to his elegant, ego-free work with the Camerata Academica des Mozarteums Salzburg, which he led for nearly two decades.

The Symphony No. 5 gets off to a rocky start, the violins not perfect in their intonation when they make their entrance; from there, however, it is mostly smooth sailing, in a genial and perfectly paced performance that is a testament to Végh’s sensitivity as a Schubertian. He will be let down by his violins again, however, in the finale, when they occasionally develop an unpleasantly scratchy tone.

The Sixth fares better: with a substantially larger orchestra - Schubert’s Fifth doesn’t call for clarinets, trumpets or timpani - and the strings in better form, this performance is substantially more enjoyable. The slow movement’s central episode is brought off with great humor and wit, descriptions which also apply to the very satisfying last two movements. The finale, in particular, comes across as a never-ending flow of jovial ideas.

The “Unfinished” is, to my mind, the highlight of the set. Played here with integrity, solid good sense, and, at the first movement’s climax, lots of drama, this “Unfinished” confirms the common remark that its nickname is inaccurate. As I listened to the stately elegance with which the slow movement sways to its close, I could not help but think that this, not the Brahms First, is “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony”: a work mirroring, in ways, the structure of Beethoven’s piano sonatas opp. 90, 109 and 111, in that it begins in turbulence and heroic striving and ends in repose, in the gentle arms of a broad, meditative slow movement. Surely this is the closest orchestral cousin of those magnificent late Beethoven works, especially in the hands of performers as attuned as these are to both the fire of the first movement and the ageless beauty of the second. Ultimately the “Beethoven’s Tenth” title is, at least historically, folly, because the “Unfinished” was written before Beethoven’s Ninth!

The “Great” C major symphony is given a suitably great performance; one of the most magical moments is the very beginning, with a tastefully hushed horn solo and very natural entrances of all the other instruments. The introduction is a bit slower than normal, the rest of the movement a little faster, but there is certainly no loss of flow or naturalness. Though the slow movement is much slower than is the norm - Végh takes 16 minutes, compared to the nearly exactly 14 minutes of Harnoncourt and both Mackerras recordings - it never loses tension or becomes boring. Its beautiful second subject blooms with restrained elegance, as a fragile flower. The final two movements dance by with terrific rhythm, and the finale is blessed with superb oboe and flute playing - as is the entire 2CD set, in fact.

Throughout the recording of this last symphony the bass is rather more prevalent than it has been in the other three, much to my delight. It is possible, in the first movement’s introduction, to hear the double-bass pizzicatos all the way through, one of several delights of the clear recorded sound here. Audio quality in the other symphonies is variable, as these appear to be from different sessions or different concerts, but it is never less than very good and no listener will be disappointed in the sound.

The liner-notes are disappointing, however; although there is a good essay on the music, we are given no information about the provenance of the recordings, even what year(s) they were made. And, although the ‘wallet’ package is much nicer than the typical plastic jewel box, it is not particularly appetizing to open the set up and see three identical portraits of the jowled Végh staring back.

All in all, I cannot imagine this set leaping off the shelves in the hands of beginning Schubertians, owing to the distinctly unflattering cover photo of Végh, glasses in hand; I also do not think these two discs will be fully satisfying to Végh’s devoted followers, since the booklet notes offer no information whatsoever about the provenance of the performances: were they live? When were they made? Where? On the other hand, if the target audience is a crowd of discerning collectors looking for solid, sympathetic readings of these symphonies with wit and grace, this two-disc set hits home.

Brian Reinhart