With the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, whose Principal Conductor he is, Philippe Herreweghe has recorded an uncommonly fleet performance of the ‘Great’ C major symphony. So far as I’m aware the orchestra plays on modern instruments but Herreweghe gets them to make a pleasingly fresh and transparent sound. Though there’s strength in the playing there’s certainly nothing flaccid about either the orchestral sound or about the interpretation.
The first movement introduction is taken at a light, fluent tempo. The marking is Andante, which I always understand to be equivalent to walking pace. This is quite a brisk walk: I make the tempo to be about crotchet = 104. This leads (at 3:01) into a very fleet Allegro. The tempo marking bears the qualification ma non troppo and some may feel that the conductor pays scant attention to that. Even with the exposition repeat taken Herreweghe brings the movement in at 14:31. By comparison, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw (Teldec 1992 - review), takes 15:50. Sir Charles Mackerras, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin Classics, 1987 – review), takes 16:24. I wouldn’t describe either of those readings as stodgy. Perhaps the best description for this Herreweghe traversal is ‘bracing’. After a while it sounds a bit breathless and occasionally unremitting to me but the energy that Herreweghe brings to the music is certainly welcome and there’s no danger of Schubert’s ‘heavenly lengths’ inducing ennui.
Crisp rhythms are once again the order of the day in the Andante and no one could suggest that Herreweghe has overlooked the addition of the words con moto. I rather feel that the conductor doesn’t ease the music often enough but when he does (for example between 4:57 and 5:22) the effect is good. As in the first movement, the orchestral textures are open and clear. When the climax is reached (7:49 – 8:24) the various sections of the brass choir are well differentiated from each other and though they make their presence felt they don’t overpower everything else. The passage immediately following is clear-eyed and unsentimental, which I like.
The Scherzo is vigorous – one would expect nothing less – and the delivery of the music is crisp and well-articulated. The orchestral playing is excellent; the sound produced is fresh and lively and, indeed, that’s been the case throughout the performance. The trio (from 6:45) goes with a real swing. The opening of the finale is a real call to attention. Thereafter the playing bristles with energy and momentum. The performance, with the exposition repeat taken, has genuine spirit and at times is genuinely exciting.
I’ve referred to the Harnoncourt and Mackerras performances. Perhaps the former offers the most applicable comparison because that, too, is a case of a period performance specialist leading a modern orchestra. The Mackerras version, by contrast, is played on period instruments. Both conductors are steadier in their overall pacing than Herreweghe in I – and Mackerras is particularly so in the main Allegro. In II again both of Herreweghe’s rivals adopt a steadier basic pulse. The differences between the three conductors are much less marked in the other two movements. One point worth making about the Harnoncourt recording, I think, is that it was made in an all-too obviously empty Concertgebouw.
This new Herreweghe recording may not be one for everyday listening – of the three versions referred to in this review my preference would be for the Mackerras. However, this Herreweghe recording is intensely refreshing and clearly the result of significant thought about the score. It offers many insights which will draw me back to it, even though I wish he’d relax a bit at times.
Two other things that will draw me back to the disc are the quality of the orchestral playing, which is very good indeed, and the recorded sound. I listened to this disc as a conventional CD and found the sound to be realistic, truthful and clear. This might not be a ‘library choice’ but it’s a version which people who know and love this symphony should try to hear, especially if their admiration for it has become a little jaded over the years. This is a performance that blows away the cobwebs.