Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, Unfinished [23:51]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, Great [55:17]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (8)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (9)
rec. Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, 9-21 January 1950 (8); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, November-December 1951 (9)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111344 [79:07]

I had best get one gripe out of the way: nowhere is it made clear on this Naxos disc that, despite the proximity of their recording dates, the Eighth (in reality the Seventh, as we are now aware) is remastered from 78s while the Ninth (the true Eighth) is from LPs and hence in much the better sound. In the former, that familiar “frying tonight” overlay obscures orchestral detail and is much more prominent than on other transfers of 78s of the period that I have heard. Anyone looking for acceptable 1950s mono sound needs to be warned that this is to be found only in the “Great C Major”. This could be enough to deter the casual buyer who is not an historical recording aficionado. The sound for the Ninth is wholly acceptable, but being CEDAR-ised, as is Mark Obert-Thorn’s wont, top frequencies are missing and there is a certain spongy quality about it. This may not worry the listener expecting standard mono sound, but direct comparison with a competitive recording such as Barbirolli’s 1966 Ninth with the Hallé, expertly restored at the Dutton laboratories and offering top-quality stereo sound for a recording of that epoch, soon reveals the difference. Similarly, Szell’s 1960 and 1967 recordings on the super-bargain Sony Essential Classics label provide superior stereo sound.

As much as I admire Furtwängler, I do not necessarily think of him as a natural Schubertian; there is surely something too Prussian and Olympian about his temperament to admit of Viennese charm? He certainly takes no hostages in his annexing of Schubert as the natural son of Beethoven, giving his symphonies a Miltonic grandeur considerably removed from the approaches of my two main comparisons: George Szell and Sir John Barbirolli. I would have liked also to consider Peter Maag, a conductor whose work I almost invariably admire, but on this occasion I find his Schubert relaxed to the point of limpness and must reluctantly discount him. Szell attacks both works with a hectic flush in his cheek, while Barbirolli steers a more genial middle course between Szell’s freneticism and Furtwängler’s ponderousness.

For me, Furtwängler’s Schubert is a mixed blessing. I find the opening movements of both symphonies to be rather stodgy and ponderous; soporific rather than mysterious and in direct contrast to the tension and sense of anticipation generated by Szell. The second movement of the Eighth plods and fails to gain momentum, whereas, again, Szell achieves first delicacy, then a majestic stride, before conjuring a kind of cautious but consolatory tripping motion from the oboes and clarinets. The combination of antique sound and uninspired stoicism from Furtwängler in the Eighth does not tempt me to return this disc, but his Ninth has much more to offer, even if it suffers from muddy sound. The careful, weighty Andante opening is succeeded by a pacier, ostinato Allegro variation but all too soon relapses. Once again I find that Szell brings much more variety in phrasing and dynamics as well allowing the low strings to emerge with greater clarity. A third successful way is found in Barbirolli’s more affectionate manner, an approach enhanced by the spacious recorded sound given to him by Dutton.

Furtwängler sells the Andante con moto short on “moto”; his march is more of a stolid trudge and the oboes do not swing as they should, while his rather deliberate application of rubato seems mannered compared with the more natural pacing of both Szell and Barbirolli. It is as if Furtwängler is too determined to underline that this movement is Schubert’s tribute to the Allegretto of Beethoven's 7th Symphony and thus neglects the music’s wit and sprightliness. Similarly, the Scherzo is heavily accented and almost menacing; the waltz does lilt as it does with Barbirolli. Meanwhile, Szell goes for an entirely different effect, risking all by shaving an incredible four minutes off the timing at 7:20 compared with Furtwängler’s 11:20. I am not sure that Szell’s was a wise choice but the effect is certainly arresting, whereas Furtwängler risks sounding merely dull.

It is in the fourth movement that Furtwängler could be said to redeem and justify his interpretation. While Szell opts for a scurrying exuberance, abetted by a virtuoso orchestra who are clearly up for that approach, Furtwängler achieves a kind of demonic intensity as he pounds out that insistent 2/4 beat. His phrasing is still very measured but he builds inexorably towards the Beethovenian bacchanale of the Coda. There is a wholly appropriate sense of homecoming when the clarinets triumphantly sound the “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” quotation. Barbirolli also commands a sure sense of the architecture of this movement, and although his Allegro vivace is the slowest on paper, it never flags, and he too conveys a sense of martial consanguinity with Beethoven as his forces charge into a glorious C major.

Beyond offering caveats regarding the quality of sound on this Naxos disc, I do not presume to create a hierarchy for these three great conductors in this music; it is very much a subjective question of personal taste. My own preference is for Barbirolli, Szell, then Furtwängler, as the latter still does not strike me as being wholly at ease with Schubert’s mercurial gifts, being a Berliner grappling with Viennese subtlety – but that fourth movement is a thing of wonder in Furtwängler’s hands.

Ralph Moore

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Michael Cookson