It’s a logical but also brave move to begin a Schubert symphony
cycle with numbers 1 and 2; these are the least often played
and recorded. Even so, they are enjoyable works and deserve
more airing than they get. That’s particularly so when performed
as well as they are here.
David Zinman grabs Symphony 1 by the scruff of the neck,
making a festive jamboree of its Adagio first movement
introduction. The recording I shall use for comparison was made
in 1987 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado (Deutsche
Grammophon 4778689). It has an introduction of more traditional
grandeur and bombast but I prefer Zinman’s faster one. It’s
maybe not exactly a true Adagio and takes 0:52 against
Abbado’s 1:08. It fits in better with the following Allegro
and also makes for a smoother transition to the introduction’s
return at the end of the development where Abbado in comparison
sounds decidedly ponderous. With the firm accents and spirited
playing Zinman brings, the main body Allegro teems
with youthful enthusiasm and animation. The movement’s almost
continuous red-blooded thrust is nevertheless relieved from
time to time. You can hear this at the relaxed, dancing opening
of the second theme (tr. 1 1:45) before it becomes more heroic
and then in turn reflective in nature. It’s a theme of surprisingly
symphonic quality which is the natural focus of the development.
To this latter Abbado brings a more epic deliberation. With
Abbado you experience the symphony as a structure. With Zinman
you feel more that it’s a journey and a pleasantly extended
one at that; unlike Abbado, he repeats the exposition.
The ‘slow’ movement is marked Andante and Zinman doesn’t
linger a jot. The pleasing flow he gets thereby conveys emotion,
generally of the gently smouldering kind. There’s tension too
and he avoids any suggestion of sentimentality. But I wonder,
is it just a little too smoothed along? The rare darker section
in E minor (tr. 2 0:56) is stinging enough but passes quickly,
almost inconsequentially. It’s all beautifully done, woodwind
particularly yet it’s eased forward a touch overmuch. This can
be heard at 5:33 and is confirmed by Abbado’s 7:38 of greater
breathing space. Every detail, such as the hushed final entry
of the theme, is lovingly observed.
The Minuet has terrific cheery bounce and pace. Zinman sweeps
it along full of confidence. You could believe this is a Schubert
take on a Beethoven scherzo. Zinman brings out the jocularity
of the six-quaver clusters, a tricky figuration which the Tonhalle
woodwind manage with barely scope for comfort at its close.
It’s worth it for the lovely contrast of a benign Trio which
is, as you’d expect, sunnier and more relaxed. Zinman gives
good attention to the wistful sigh in the first violins as the
melody expands with the Minuet’s jocular motif hovering in the
background. Abbado is a touch more laid-back in the Minuet.
He offers a little more light and shade but his Trio is less
of a contrast.
Zinman’s finale is a true Allegro vivace: first violins’
light opening, then ultimate zip from full orchestra. The second
theme (1:14), however, offers a little breathing space. It recalls
the easygoing time of the Trio - though not for long. This really
is a virtuoso performance by the Tonhalle Orchestra. Just listen
to the head of steam Zinman achieves from 1:38 at the end of
the exposition. I particularly enjoyed the first violins screeching
like banshees from 4:54 in the coda. Abbado brings out the structure
of Schubert’s argument cleanly and precisely but lacks Zinman’s
propulsive energy and excitement.
Symphony 2 is more carefree, less symphonic than its
predecessor. The first movement introduction has a gentler tutti
bounce and sunnier strings’ reflection. The delicate violins’
figurations is pointed up by florid twirls from the first flute.
This is a sign that Schubert’s interest here is as much in variation
of texture as melody. The first theme of the Allegro
simply sets a perpetuum mobile in gear and Zinman obtains
light running quavers in the strings. The second theme (tr.
5 2:00) is slighter than in Symphony 1 but sweeter. It grows
more steely before it becomes thoughtful. Conventionally the
exposition should finish at 3:28 but Schubert then adds a long
codetta. Zinman brings both an irrepressible and triumphant
joie de vivre to it all. Relief comes in the development
as the reflective material takes the foreground. However, I
prefer Abbado’s handling of this movement. Zinman’s faster introduction
(1:00 against Abbado’s 1:13) works less well here. Abbado also
secures more poised dynamic contrast as the strings get softer
and a greater delicacy is established which remains fundamental
to the Allegro. This he keeps even lighter and more
feathery than Zinman. He achieves intensity without force, making
the whole more intriguing and Mendelssohnian. Zinman is more
stimulating but also more exhausting. The prolix codetta makes
Zinman’s observation of the exposition repeat less of an advantage.
Abbado does not favour the repeat.
The slow movement (tr. 6) is a Haydnesque winsome theme in E
flat major. This is treated to gentle variations, largely changes
of instrumentation. For instance the oboe is spotlit in Variation
1 (1:08). Zinman delightfully adds extra ornamentation in the
repeats of the strains, as does his clarinet soloist in Variation
5 (5:33). There’s the surprise of a gruff Variation 4 in C minor
(4:29), the contrast of which Zinman takes full advantage. At
the same time he shows it’s only a storm in a teacup. I prefer
the way Zinman presents the variations as a continual flow one
into another, taking 7:29 as distinct from Abbado’s more studied
series of tableaux taking 8:36. Mind you, Abbado allows you
to enjoy more vertical detail and it comes with a coda of more
grace and poise.
In the Minuet the mood is again gruff, the key C minor. The
Tonhalle Orchestra’s playing has plenty of bite. Peppered with
sforzandi and a relentless stream of quavers in the
strings, Zinman gives it the character of gritty striving. Even
so there’s a kind of jubilation that emerges from this in its
second section. He also makes it a true Allegro vivace
at 3:10, beside which Abbado’s 3:42 sounds rather leaden and
polite. Zinman is then able to make the E flat major Trio a
rather cheeky contrast in its oboe solo. There’s added ornamentation
on repeat. A game flute and clarinet join the oboe in the second
section. Abbado trips along here rather more innocently.
In the good-humoured finale Zinman begins the opening rondo
theme at a light canter. Flute and oboe now mock the first violins
in echo. There’s a pleasing contrast in the benignly humane
second theme (tr. 8 0:44) which is given a sunny treatment.
The third theme (4:35) is a development of the first four notes
of the rondo theme with a brief counter-theme. All is clearly
revealed by Zinman yet what you’ll respond to is the sheer spirit
and energy of it all. Abbado emphasises lightness of texture,
pointed gradation of dynamics and a more lissom second theme,
neatly done. Zinman lets his hair down and this seems more appropriate
for a finale. This makes for a fitting close to spirited accounts
which revel in the liberal zeal of Schubert’s youth.