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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony in C, D944 (No. 8/9) [55:44]
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. live, 9-11 May 2011, Tonhalle, Zurich
RCA RED SEAL 88697 97398 2 [55:44]

This is a very entertaining Schubert “Great” symphony. Notice this CD calls it No. 8, the newer, more accurate numbering of what is traditionally called the Ninth. The first movement’s allegro really catches fire and charges down the track, the orchestra is always a pleasure to listen to, and David Zinman’s leadership has the sort of electric edge that many “period-informed” performances have; see also: Harnoncourt and Mackerras, but not the disappointing Dausgaard. What I mean, by the way, is a rhythmic sharpness that makes everything just a little more edge-of-seat, even if it’s not faster than the norm, coupled with concessions to period practice like the hard-stick timpani and a priority on orchestral clarity.
Unfortunately that orchestral clarity is hampered somewhat by the sound. This is first evident in the introduction, when a couple of important trumpet lines get completely drowned out by the rest of the orchestra [3:14]. The horns and trombones go unheard a little too often in the still-thrilling allegro. Then, when an outbreak of coughing erupts in the andante, we finally learn what the booklet never says: this is a live recording. How they recorded three different nights, as stated, but couldn’t find a way to cover up the audience noise, is beyond me.
The sound is not a huge problem, but it’s a noticeable one. It’s more troublesome because not too much makes Zinman’s excellent Schubert all that much more excellent than Harnoncourt’s, Mackerras’, Iván Fischer’s, Wand’s, or on period instruments Immerseel’s. The main new feature here is that the clarinet and oboe soloists improvise ornamentations to some of their solos. In the first movement, this happens as soon as the introduction, and is fairly interesting. In the slow movement this happens five or six times and begins unobtrusively but starts getting annoying. The ornamentation isn’t badly done, but it's not very creative and gets repetitive. I also find it strange that only the clarinet and oboe indulge, and only in the first half, unless my ears misheard.
Now that most of the review has been negative, can I circle back and say that overall this is a good CD? I will certainly return to it with pleasure, despite the odd complaint. It just falls in the unenviable and hard-to-write-about position of being one of a couple dozen strong recent recordings that don’t quite manage to be great. For a similar live performance that also delivers the goods, but in breathtaking sound, try Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
Brian Reinhart