Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 1 in D major D.82 (1813) [25:35]
Symphony No. 3 in D major D.200 (1815) [24:32]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor D.759 Unfinished (1822) [28:17]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat D.125 (1815) [34:02]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor Tragic D.417 (1816) [33:50]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat D.485 (1816) [31:20]
Symphony No. 6 in C D.589 (1818) [33:35]
Symphony No. 9 in C major Great D.944 (1828) [61:47]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
rec. Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg, 2003-2006 TUDOR 1660 SACD [4 CDs: 79:09 + 77:52 + 64:55 + 61:47]
The single discs for this set have been reviewed previously on MWI
(see below). Responses were generally very favourable to Jonathan Nott’s Schubert symphonic cycle, though admissions were made as to a certain ‘Marmite effect’ – a love it or hate it response which becomes apparent when comparisons come into play, especially with some of those which have appeared in the decade or so since these Bamberg SO recordings were made. These are indeed ‘full-fat’ performances with a gorgeously sumptuous sound. This is however not an accusation of heaviness, and the contrasts of texture in the First Symphony show straight away where the advantages are to be heard between a light-footed string sound and chamber-music wind ensemble moments, and the dynamic impact of big orchestral tuttis with the resonant wallop of modern timpani. Collectors who have become enamoured of more intimate versions such as those with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard on the BIS label may however struggle with the richer Bamberg sound, especially in the earlier symphonies.
Just looking at the first movement of this First Symphony flags up numerous advantages for Nott however. Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Teldec/Warner Classics (review) loses some clarity in the bigger Amsterdam acoustic, which works against the nimbleness of the strings. David Zinman recorded his Schubert on the RCA label with the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, arguably over-egging the drama with a more ‘in your face’ perspective. Compared with Zinman, Nott is much lighter and transparent, layering his dynamics with sensitivity and creating a musical narrative which invites repeated listening rather than blowing your socks off at the outset and becoming tiresome on subsequent visits. The timing for the release of this set also puts it into competition with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s newly released Schubert cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on their own label, but with added Masses and super luxury packaging this is a greater investment and, I’m told, not automatically preferable to Nott when it comes to the symphonies. The clips I’ve heard sound very good indeed, and I have the feeling Harnoncourt’s delivery of Schubert’s emotional message is more intense than Nott, though a colleague reviewer who has both sets also informs me that the Berlin recordings are the same vintage as the Bambergs, so not exactly new.
Back to Bamberg, and I can see where the controversy lies, if indeed there is any. Jonathan Nott’s sound in the first volume is as close to the Vienna of Bruckner as it is to that of Mozart or Haydn, and I can imagine this getting up one or two people’s noses. Once again, the playing is not heavy, and there is plenty of sprightly string playing and the tempi move forward with positive energy. Nott’s view is however a little lusher and more spacious than some, with some subtle extra sustain on accented chords such as those in the first movement of the Third Symphony, perhaps a little like Karajan might have done in the 1980s. The opening of the Seventh Symphony is another case in point, with bags of atmosphere and a nice ballroom dance feel, but in a measured tempo which expands the music into realms just beyond today’s expected briskness. You’ll either see this sort of reference as a boon or a barrier. I personally quite like this big-boned approach, and these early symphonies have plenty of red blood in their veins to add to the respectful refinement of the playing, so unless you are a committed adherent to authentic instruments and closer to chamber-music scale then there is a great deal to be enjoyed here. The second movement of this ‘Unfinished’ symphony is full and warm, and something to be enjoyed late at night with your expensive headphones on and a glass of brandy. If you want a version to brush your teeth to of a morning try John Eliot Gardiner.
CD 2 brings us the Second Symphony and, knowing what to expect, there are no real surprises but still plenty to relish in the weighty sound of the orchestra and the energetic impetus of the performances. These are recordings which seem intended to delight fans of SACD sound with their pleasant gloss and hefty sonority, though this is of course also apparent in standard stereo. The Fourth Symphony is, as the booklet notes point out, haunted by Beethoven, and if there were any doubts about the appropriate nature of the readings of the first three then the dramatic nature of this work is carried off with great panache. Again, the ‘dance’ nature of the Andante and Minuetto is taken broadly, but with expressive playing there is no tussle between perception and performance, and everything works well. The final Allegro doesn’t feel frantic, but neither does it feel slow, and there is a nice sense of inner dialogue between the orchestral sections.
CD 3 and the opening of the Fifth Symphony is well served by the depth of the bass sound in the recording, introducing a sweet dialogue between the upper and lower voices. There is a little pulling and pushing of the tempo here and there; barely perceptible at times, but enhancing the lyrical nature of the first movement rather than turning into a wholly forward-driving and more urgent affair. The Andante con moto is a gorgeous movement, here given just the right amount of air between the phrases without losing cohesion. The Menuetto has an upbeat feel, light and rich in dynamic contrasts without becoming superficial, relaxed and effortless without losing those moments of dramatic tautness. The final Allegro vivace has real wit and good humour, immaculately turned out at every corner and a genuine delight.
The Sixth Symphony has a Beethovenian feel from the outset, and Nott is happy to emphasise that, fully aware of Schubert’s admiration for his fellow townsman and elder master. The elegant little rises and falls of the Andante are played to perfection, and those kick-out rhythmic features of the Scherzo are given just the right amount of weight, everything unforced but fully effective. The final Allegro vivace is based on sonata form but to me the music is anything but abstract. It’s like a portrait of Viennese life in 1818, from fantastical ballrooms to military bombast and a bustling metropolis bursting with energetic culture and commerce, and the musicians on this recording seem alive to all of these qualities.
We’re down to the last disc and the Eighth Symphony, which you may of course also know as the Ninth. Nott’s tempi are acknowledged as being pretty broad in some of the symphonies but this ‘Great’ is paced nicely from the outset, the introduction by no means as slow as that from Herbert Blomstedt and the Staatskapelle Dresden (review). Things even out further along in the first movement, but observation of repeats means that the timings overall see Nott’s version sitting fairly happily in its single-disc isolation. The Andante con moto is well accented without becoming brutal, the Scherzo is more easy-going than with Blomstedt, who finds an almost Mahlerian drama in the movement. The influence of Beethoven returns in the Finale, with Nott getting the most out of the dynamics in little those little inner rises and falls of volume, managing to keep things transparent and having great fun with those more tender moments, the busy strings keeping everything together with aplomb.
In conclusion, I consider this set of the Schubert symphonies very easy to recommend indeed. Their fine SACD sound is a big draw, but the performances are all very good, the controversies over tempi here and there not really causing me much concern. I quite like the ‘full-fat’ approach, and appreciate the generally light touch Nott obtains from his excellent Bamberger Symphoniker. There are of course other excellent sets around, and there are distinguished cycles from the likes of Karl Böhm, Sir Colin Davis and others already mentioned or missed. Nott’s recordings may not be the absolute last word on these works, but if I were to find them at the bottom of my washed-up trunk on that desert island then I would be very happy indeed.
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