Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete Symphonies
No. 1 in D [23:17]
No. 2 in B flat [26:32]
No. 3 in D [26:09]
No. 4 in C minor “Tragic” [29:32]
No. 5 in B flat [27:45]
No. 6 in C “Little C major” [31:01]
No. 8 in B minor “Unfinished” [26:20]
No. 9 in C “Great C major” [54:34]
Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Mark Minkowski
rec. live, Konzerthaus, Vienna, March 2012
NAÏVE V5299 [4 CDs: 76:15 + 58:48 + 57:29 + 54:34]
Mark Minkowski’s set of Haydn’s London Symphonies was remarkable for a distinctive, unique take on a set of well-loved, well-respected masterpieces. This set brings him and his orchestra back to the Vienna Konzerthaus for another journey of exploration in the canon of Viennese symphonies. The results are every bit as exciting.
Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble are one of the most interesting “authentic” bands playing today. Working with Minkowski, they create a sound-world for Schubert that is utterly distinctive and really rather special. They use period instruments, but avoid the slightly harsh, sometimes abrasive sound that can sometimes mar performances from the likes of Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band. Minkowski’s performances feel revelatory and exploratory rather than confrontational or intentionally iconoclastic. The first thing you notice is the playing of the winds: perky, distinctive, even a little cheeky in the early symphonies - especially the two D major works - with a slightly sour twang that gives them bags of character while still being enormously pleasing to the ear. Listen to the moment when the introduction to No. 3 veers away from the home key of D: the wind playing that accompanies that episode is inquisitive and probing, even ghostly at times. I found it magical and for me it worked completely. They are capable of comedy too, resembling the wheeze of a hurdy-gurdy in the trio of No. 3’s Menuet. The strings, meanwhile, have that slight rough edge to them that singles them out as interesting without once approaching ugliness. Instead they have a sharpness that penetrates the score and make the line stick out all the more. This is heard to best effect in the first two movements of No. 4. The main theme of the Allegro is vigorous and exciting, the gut sound giving the minor key an extra edge of dramatic excitement. In the succeeding Andante, however, the string sound is transformed into something restful and beautiful, with almost an air of benediction.
The whole approach works because it’s all of a piece with the way Minkowski brings these works to life. He strips off the patina that can accrue over these works and replaces it with a forensic exploration of the music that, for me at any rate, made it feel as though I was exploring these works for the very first time. It also serves as a reminder of just how fresh and exciting these works are, the earliest symphonic explorations of a prodigious genius showing just what he could do. No. 5, for example, comes across as a much more mature work than it is normally given credit for. The first movement is sunny and carefree but still vigorous and determined. The Andante, proceeding with a fair spring to its step, is profound and beautiful, while the Menuet is by turns stern and playful while always remaining vigorous. The finale scampers with the playfulness of a kitten.
Minkowski’s direction is as fresh and exciting as is the playing of his musicians. The slow movement of No. 3, for example, proceeds with minimum bustle but a huge amount of Haydnesque wit, the violins seeming to engage in a question-and-answer session. It’s almost a game, with the rest of the orchestra, and answered with a clarinet that simply oozes character. He doesn’t lack any wit or exuberance in the early symphonies. The finale of No. 3 whizzes like a Catherine Wheel, while in that symphony’s Menuet he relishes the comedy of the off-centre downbeat. There is drama and intensity too, however, even in the most youthful works: the minor key episode in No. 1’s Andante is intense and poetic; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is the work of a “mere” sixteen year-old! Likewise, the first movement of No.2 is a skittering, effervescent delight, exuberant and playful with a majestic conclusion. Only No. 6 feels a little routine, despite the delicacy of the grace notes in the first movement, with a workmanlike slow movement and slightly unexciting finale.
Minkowski’s interpretations deepen and broaden as he approaches the two great last symphonies. The variety of texture in the Unfinished is marvellous. Here, again, it is the string tone that takes centre-stage, its hard edge lending the drama an edge of severity, even of savagery that can really take the listener aback. The beginning of the development feels like a descent into the dark, and the first movement's coda is extremely powerful. The strings then pour down Elysian light for the main theme of the Andante, and the communion between strings and winds makes for a sound of exceptional beauty and intelligence. The first appearance of the second theme on the winds, for example, emerges gently floated against a hovering bed of string sound that is completely bewitching. It makes its ensuing savage disruption all the more disturbing. Minkowski shapes the pair of movements like panels of a complementary diptych, as if reflected in one another. He produces a satisfyingly rounded whole, and there is a sense of attainment and resignation in his reading of the final bars.
The whole set is crowned by a sensational reading of the “Great” C major, one of the finest I’ve heard. In the context of the overall set, the sound for this symphony is surprisingly big, notably more muscular than most of the rest of the set: the horns that open the work came as a genuine surprise to me in the light of what had gone before. Having a bigger orchestra helps, but Minkowski’s skill is to keep them agile and lithe in the pointing of every phrase: listen, for example, to the way he launches the first movement’s exposition repeat with what feels like a sly wink. The increased instrumentation is allowed to do its job, though, and the trombones add an extra blaze of glory to the coda. The Andante con moto proceeds with seriousness and a touch of humour, with even a slightly insolent tone to the way the oboe presents the main theme, and the tutti passages are clipped and exciting. The Scherzo is like a unison swagger, and the finale veritably bristles with energy and, importantly, a sense of movement and direction. The unison chords of the coda sound like the footsteps of a giant, Schubert taking orchestral music to new territory and succeeding triumphantly. The period instruments add an extra touch of sauce to the sound, making this essential listening.
In fact, I’m tempted to say the same thing about the whole set. Minkowski has re-thought these works and presented each one with thoughtfulness and integrity. His players share his love of them and, in their hands, listening to these works is like undertaking a journey of discovery along with the musicians themselves. In this way, the most pertinent comparison is with Minkowski’s 2009 performances of Haydn’s London Symphonies, also with Les Musiciens du Louvre, also recorded live in the Vienna Konzerthaus. His approach to Haydn is as archaeological as it is to Schubert: each symphony feels as though it has been rediscovered, almost newly created. The special texture of Les Musiciens du Louvre really brought the Haydn symphonies alive in the same way as they do with Schubert. The last three symphonies, in particular, with their especially prominent roles for natural trumpets and drums, explode out of the speakers with freshness and verve. In fact, Minkowski’s greatest performance of that set, for me, is No. 102 in B flat. He brings that work alive in the same way that he does with Schubert’s junior B flat symphony. In the same way that his Schubertian rhythms are well sprung and vigorous, he consistently brings a similar touch to Haydn, particular in the triple time opening movements of 96, 97 and 93. There is an irresistible lilt in the way he points the rhythms of both composers, showing himself to be fully inside the rhythmic universe of Classical Vienna. The wit that he brings to Schubert is foreshadowed in the various comic touches he brings to Haydn, such as the “foghorn” effect at the end of 93’s slow movement, or the famous surprise in No. 94 which is genuinely surprising here - I won’t spoil it! More than anything else, though, it is the sheer, explosive joy of music-making that unites these two symphonic sets. No. 97’s opening movement, for example, is exhilarating, as are the ebullient finales of No. 101 and No. 104.
Minkowski’s Haydn set has won many plaudits when it was released, and this Schubert set deserves to do the same. It helps that it appears at mid-price in an attractive clam-shell box with excellent booklet notes. This is, for me, the most successful Schubert set to have appeared since Abbado, and quite possibly a first choice if you want period instruments. Invest and enjoy.
Simon Thompson 

The most successful Schubert set to have appeared since Abbado. Invest and enjoy.