In the early 1990s, Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made these period-performance Schubert recordings for the Virgin label, along with a disc containing the ‘Great’ C Major symphony. They have been continuously reissued, deleted from the catalog, and then reissued again ever since. The last appearance of these recordings was in a two-disc set with the Ninth, which cost only a few pounds more than this new single CD. The last issue also had considerably less silly cover art and a genuine essay in the booklet. All the releases share the excellent musicianship you’d expect from these players.
No matter the cover art, the performances have always been utterly wonderful. This is a fresh, lively Fifth with great playing from every member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – like the flutes in the first movement and oboe in the finale, or the gentle horn-call which closes the andante. Charles Mackerras conducted with youthful vigor until his death this year at age 84, and is in top form here. The period instrument ensemble is gentle-sounding, not harsh; it doesn’t transform the music but just adds extra color and vibrancy.
Mackerras has a distinctive view on the first movement of the Eighth Symphony: he drives it hard, and the dramatic difference in speed makes this performance distinctive. The major-key theme is a ‘limping waltz’ here, unusually poignant, and the development is almost graphically violent. The andante con moto
is march-like, by turns stately and fierce (I had never recognized its closeness in spirit to the corresponding movement in the Ninth).
Unfortunately, the other two movements do still feel like “add-ons.” Schubert was wise not to append the nearly-completed scherzo to the rest of the work. Partly this view is my own prejudice: Mackerras and the OAE very consciously make sure the ending of the slow movement does not sound “final” and “cosmic” so that we can plausibly imagine something following it. But Schubert ignored the lesson of Beethoven’s Eroica
: follow up a sublime andante with a scherzo that begins quietly. And the finale still sounds disjointed to me, though one could not ask for better orchestral playing than what we have here. These performers are certainly more enthusiastic about the Newbould completion than the Buffalo Philharmonic was on a recent Naxos disc. The Rosamunde
excerpt is a delightful encore about which no reservations apply.
In sum, these performances are valuable additions to any library.
Mackerras is in vintage form and the OAE are one of the most tonally
appealing period instrument groups around. But the two-disc set
which appends the Ninth is still available in many online shops,
and represents a superior bargain. [MDT
CD has liner notes so minimal they do not discuss the completion
of the “Unfinished,” or describe the artists.) And you will need
to hear Mackerras’ 2008 Ninth with the Philharmonia, which in
many ways is even better. They are all superb performances, any
way you buy them.