Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D82 (1813) [31:41]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D125 (1815) [29:02]
CD 2
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D200 (1815) [23:00]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D417 Tragic (1816) [30:25]
CD 3
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816) [29:10]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D859 (1818) [30:12]
CD 4
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759 Unfinished (1822) [24:15]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D.944 Great (1827) [53:47]

Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1982-1984
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300037BC [4 CDs: 60:45 + 53:27 + 59:25 + 78:04]

I can’t read the name ‘Staatskapelle Dresden’ without hearing it in the broad Scottish accent of a colleague in a record shop I used to work in. She was much enamoured of their string sound among other things, and while I disagreed with her on many subjects I have to admit carrying a high degree of respect for this orchestra ever since having its qualities pointed out to me. While I don’t intend quoting the kind of hyperbole which kept me pinned to a wall for a good 5 minutes one Thursday afternoon in the mid to late 1980s, I can confirm that this fine orchestra shines in this Schubert collection. Herbert Blomstedt is a fine and oft underrated conductor whose symphonic recordings of composers such as Nielsen and Sibelius are still among the finest around, so the chances were always stacked in favour of this set being a cut above many others.

Released on the Berlin Classics ‘Basics’ label, this is indeed a rather basic box, with no booklet notes and precious little information about the recordings. You may have seen this set mid-decade on the Edel Classics label, but distribution has apparently been rather dodgy for that particular box, and you are more likely to have come across them on the Brilliant Classics label. I don’t have any of these previous releases to hand, but would have to assume the quality is similar. This latest release is marked ‘Digitally Remastered’, but makes no claims to being a new version in this regard, so it may just be a re-release of a previous re-mastering of what are in any case very fine sounding analogue recordings. While I have had the pleasure of hearing quite a few other recordings of most of these symphonies, the complete version I have had hanging around on my shelves since 1989 is that of the Berlin Philharmoniker with Daniel Barenboim in a big chunky 5 CD CBS Masterworks box. This was re-released on the Sony Essential Classics label, shorn of its Rosamunde extracts filler and squeezed onto 4 CDs, but is no longer in print and was never a really satisfactory set either way. The rather dull and generalised orchestral sound with vague and distant timpani always disappointed, and Barenboim’s conducting, while musically sensitive enough, was rather unexceptional in this set. First impressions of the Staatskapelle Dresden are much better, with only a marginally over-wobbly lead flute to temper my enthusiasm here and there throughout the set.

There is only one other problem with this set, and that is the sheer quantity/quality of competition around. The Staatskapelle Dresden is even in competition with itself, there being another set on RCA conducted by Sir Colin Davis, and quite a nice recording of the Symphony No.9 conducted by Jeffrey Tate on EMI, long deleted. Of the ‘non-authentic’ recordings, there do indeed seem to be rather a lot which are hard to find or which have been deleted. Günther Wand’s RCA set is very fine if you can get it, and his live Berlin PO Unfinished on the same label is a treasure. What Herbert Blomstedt’s recording offers is high quality and consistency through the entire set. The earlier symphonies may not offer quite the high-octane creativity of the later greater works, but Blomstedt has a good ear for the originality Schubert showed in his first few symphonies, and there is nothing at all perfunctory in any of the movements recorded here. Fine statements such as the grand Menuetto of the Symphony No.2 benefit from well balanced winds and brass, to go along with the fine deep string sound we would expect from this quarter. Phrasing and the weighing of significant harmonic progressions and little touches of orchestral colour all make their mark, and make these symphonies a fresh source of delight and discovery.

Many of Schubert’s symphonies lay undiscovered until the mid-1860s, and aside from the later numbers have always been seen as being rather too heavily under the influence and shadows of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart to be considered seriously. Why perform an imitator when you have the real thing? Well, Blomstedt makes as good an argument as you could want for the by turns sunny and dramatic Symphony No.3, his light touch and grip on dynamic contrast bringing the music to vibrant life. The ‘Tragic’ Symphony No.4 has that brooding opening. It was Schubert who gave this work its subtitle, so we can assume the association was a real and personal one rather than a publisher’s gimmick. The wobbly flute is reined in at this section’s conclusion from about 2:30, and I find myself wishing this could have been the case earlier on in the solo as well. We also get a fine dose of vibrato from the oboe solo in that quintessentially Schubertian Andante, so there are a few questions of taste to be dealt with here. Those preferring the more ironed-out lines of a period performance may want to look elsewhere, but for red-blooded playing of expressive depth and range you can do far worse than these performances – vibrato or not.

With discs 3 and 4 we get into the meat of some of Schubert’s best orchestral music, and Blomstedt and his Dresden forces come up with the goods every time. Melodic shape and lyrical forms drape themselves over your consciousness in the gorgeous Andante con moto of the Symphony No.5, and the bounce and pacing of both the Menuetto and the final Allegro vivace deliver freshness and energy. Still under the spell of Beethoven and Rossini, the Symphony No.6 is still a transitional work, but Blomstedt responds to the ways in which Schubert seeks increasing elbow room with a characteristic use of Ländler and other local Austrian styles in the Andante and the trio of the Scherzo third movement. The articulation is superb in this movement, infectiously lively and dynamic. The final two symphonies are always going to be the pinnacle of any such set, and while they are the pieces by which a complete survey might stand or fall, in this case the overall standard is so high that one need have no fears. Blomstedt is a safe pair of hands, and there are no real eccentricities in terms of tempi. The excellent orchestral voicing and balance comes into its own in the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony No.8, the poetic aspects of which are reinforced by a maintaining of remarkable intensity in the Allegro moderato first movement. Taking a reasonably broad tempo, Blomstedt doesn’t linger over-expressively over the song-like lyrical lines, but maintains tension throughout the cyclical repetitions and transitional passages through exacting observation of dynamic detail and a formal sculpting of the music’s ebb and flow. The horns are well balanced and not over obtrusive, but give remarkable expressive colour – often self-effacing within the orchestral texture, but giving plenty of flavour to the opening of the Andante con moto second movement. The dramatic elements in this movement are well matched with the gentler lyrical sections, while still maintaining an enigmatic aura of inspired moment and promise unfulfilled. Blomstedt is arguably a little too precious here, and he might have given a marginally more compact performance, but there is no arguing with the beauty of the results achieved.

So to the ‘Great’ Symphony No.9, where the slowing of pace seems determined to continue on from the conclusion of the Symphony No.8. The restraint of the horns in the opening, and the broad pace of the opening Andante in general works well however, and it was here that Robert Schumann wrote to Mendelssohn in 1839 on discovering the score, referring to it in that oft-quoted term of a “heavenly length”. Blomstedt’s timing for the symphony as a whole is not exceptional. There is nothing leaden about the ensuing Allegro ma non troppo, though Blomstedt allows the detail and expressive weight of the music to speak without seeking drama in a headlong gallop. The second movement is one of those ‘wow’ inventions, so simple, and even in Schubert’s late phase of composition with a debt of gratitude to Beethoven, but still a superbly noble movement and especially so in this recording. The Scherzo kicks out plenty more energy, and should have you moving about the room one way or another, such is the dance-like momentum which is created here where the seeds of Mahler are planted and well fertilised. The rousing Finale is fittingly feisty, and a showpiece for a fine orchestra on top form.

By any standards this is a fine cycle of Schubert’s symphonies, and is easily recommendable. There is a refreshing colour to the East German orchestra’s winds and brass which suits this music very well, though those completely allergic to vibrato may want to consider having a listen before taking the plunge. This is an aspect of the performance which is only a point of issue with solos of one kind or another, and within the entirely of the sound the balance and timbre of the sections is as well presented as you could want in an orchestral recording. Herbert Blomstedt’s interpretations allow Schubert’s inventive muse to shine through unencumbered by extra baggage, though they do not shy away from allowing the forward-looking elements and unique force of the best music from speaking with clarity and impact.

Dominy Clements

Consistent high standard endowed with clarity and impact.… see Full Review