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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 2 in B major, D.125 (1814-15) [27.14]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D.589 (1817-18) [31.28]
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. live 28-29 August 2013 (D.125), 12-14 August 2014 (D.589), Stadt-Casino Basel Musiksaal, Switzerland

The Sinfonieorchester Basel under chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies continues its Schubert survey with live recordings of the Symphony No. 2, D.125 and Symphony No. 6, D.589 ‘Little C major’. A few months ago I reviewed the debut release in this series: live performances of Symphonies No. 3, D.200 and No. 5, D.485.

In his lifetime Schubert was acknowledged almost exclusively as a composer of lieder. None of his orchestral works had been issued in printed editions and it seems that he never heard any of his orchestral music played by professional orchestras. His genius as a symphonic composer was only revealed after his death. The early symphonies are classical in form and style and decidedly influenced by Haydn and Mozart. The Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 are splendid works but don’t come close to matching the greatness of the later symphonies: Nos. 8, D.759 and 9, D.944.

During his time writing the Symphony No. 2 the teenage Schubert was a teaching assistant at his father’s school and still receiving composition lessons from Antonio Salieri. He had already written a number of songs including Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118 and also his Mass No. 2, D.167. In this performance the uplifting quality and vibrancy of the playing is immediately apparent with Davies taking an unaffected and non-aggressive approach. Decidedly impressive is the sensible pacing of the third movement Menuetto - Allegro Vivace with ample orchestral weight when required. Despite the unruffled surface Davies perceptively reveals a dark and slightly menacing subtext.

At the time of writing Symphony No. 6 Schubert had returned to the parental home after spending time in lodgings at the house of his friend Franz von Schober. Furthermore he was back working as a teaching assistant which he found uninspiring. Between writing the two symphonies on this disc he had composed a huge number of songs numbering some 150 in 1815 and a further 100 in 1816 plus other works including the two Overtures in the Italian Style, D590 and D591. On this recording Davies ensures that his Basle players make the most of Schubert’s innate melodic gift with colourful, rhythmic playing that feels light on its feet, fresh and ebullient. There's the polished and rather precise playing in the Andante and this radiates through to the passages requiring a strong dramatic intensity.

These engaging live performances are superbly recorded. I look eagerly forward to the remaining symphonies in the set. What does puzzle me is why the orchestra hasn’t utilised the available space and added to the desirability of the release by including one of Schubert’s excellent orchestral overtures. For those requiring recordings of the complete Schubert symphonies I can recommend four highly impressive sets. The winner is conducted by Karl Böhm with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 4 CDs. These were recorded in 1963/71 in the exceptional acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. As a Schubert conductor with few peers Böhm conducted typically warm and polished performances on Deutsche Grammophon. There is an excellently played and recorded 4 CD set conducted by István Kertész and the Wiener Philharmoniker that he recorded in 1963/71 at the Sofiensaal, Vienna for Decca. I often play another set from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Those sympathetic and unfailingly musical performances were recorded live at the Concertgebouw Hall, Amsterdam in 1992 on Warner Classics. Rather under the radar but well worth investigating is the impressive 2013 release conducted by Lorin Maazel with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. All the symphonies were recorded live by Maazel in 2001 at the Prinzregententheater, Munich and have after a decade finally made it to disc on a 3 CD set on BR-Klassik.

Michael Cookson