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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 The Great (1825) [62.47]
Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, 19-23 September 2011, Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna and 24-25 September 2011, Auditorium, Bolzano, Italy
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4652 [62.47]

My Schubert listening has mainly been confined to a number of treasured box sets of complete symphonies (detailed below). Yet every now and then a new release comes along of such excellence that it seems a fixture on your CD player. One such is from the late Claudio Abbado conducting Orchestra Mozart in the Schubert Symphony No. 9. In fact when I first heard an excerpt from the recording it stopped me in my tracks.

Abbado had a vocation for working with young people and in the course of his career was behind initiatives to establish more than twelve ensembles. The newest orchestras he established were the Lucerne Festival Orchestra founded 2003 and the Orchestra Mozart of Bologna founded 2004. The latter plays on this release.

Unfortunately I was never able to see Abbado conduct in concert. This was despite making arrangements to report from the Dresden Music Festival in June 2014 which included a concert in the spectacular Frauenkirche to be given by Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart. Sadly, Abbado died in January 2014 and fittingly the Frauenkirche concert was replaced by one dedicated to his memory. In Abbado’s place another Milanese conductor, Daniele Gatti was engaged with the Berlin-based Mahler Chamber Orchestra; another ensemble that Abbado had founded in 1997.

Schubert wrote what became known as the ‘GreatC major in 1825 three years before his death. The ‘Great’ serves to distinguish it from his Sixth Symphony which was also in the key of C major. A decade after Schubert’s death in 1828, Robert Schumann unearthed the ‘GreatC major amongst the manuscripts of Franz Schubert. Of the many accolades given to this wonderful symphony Robert Schumann famously wrote in a letter to his wife Clara, “I have found a symphony of heavenly length”. Musicologist David Ewen described the score as having “monumental power, profound emotional content, great complexity and individuality.” Thanks to the endeavours of Mendelssohn and Schumann this score finally got its posthumous première in 1839.

Abbado had lived with the Symphony for many years conducting it for the first time in 1966. An almost spiritual rapport is palpable arising from Abbado’s close relationship with the Orchestra Mozart on this Deutsche Grammophon release. I can easily understand the critical acclaim for this recording. Abbado directs a fresh and captivating account with rhythmic security, ardently characterful playing and impeccable integrity. Noticeable is Abbado’s resolute emphasis on cleanly sprung rhythms. Especially satisfying is an innate sensitivity that reveals vivid colours and a wealth of detail. In the lengthy opening Andante - Allegro ma non troppo there's a steady forward momentum with unquenchable vitality. With its glorious lyricism and broad dynamics the second movement Andante con moto is compellingly interpreted. In the generously-sized Scherzo Abbado is in his element imbuing delightful expression to the splendid Ländler-like dance rhythms. Rather than force a breakneck pace, unlike many interpreters, here is a conductor who takes the substantial Finale at a level-headed pace. He prefers to concentrate on maintaining an unforced intensity and tension. This works admirably.

This Abbado release with the Orchestra Mozart was assembled at live concerts in 2011 at Bologna Auditorium Manzoni and also at Bolzano Auditorium. Normally I would baulk at a record label putting together a four movement symphony from performances at two separate locations. In fact the result feels seamless and I certainly wouldn’t have known if it had not been declared. The sound-team for Deutsche Grammophon has produced excellent sonics and the audio image is crystal clear and well balanced. I could detect virtually no extraneous audience noise and there is no applause at the conclusion.

For those requiring sets of the complete Schubert symphonies the competition is extremely fierce. Nevertheless, I can suggest four highly recommendable recordings. Of the analogue recordings my list is headed by Karl Böhm and the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in 1963/71 in the exceptional acoustic of Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. As a Schubert conductor Böhm had few peers and he conducts typically warm and polished performances on Deutsche Grammophon. There is also an excellently played and recorded set conducted by István Kertész and the Wiener Philharmoniker recorded in 1963/71 at the Sofiensaal, Vienna on Decca. Leading the digital recordings is the marvellous set recently released in June 2015 from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded live in 2003/06 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on the orchestra’s own label. The meticulous Harnoncourt has made lengthy and serious study of Schubert’s own manuscripts removing the unauthentic revisions that have become part of the scores. From start to finish the well prepared orchestra plays magnificently with a sense of spontaneity that carries the listener along on an enthralling journey. Well worth investigating is the impressive 2013 release conducted by Lorin Maazel with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. All the symphonies were recorded by Maazel in 2001 live at the Prinzregententheater, Munich and after well over a decade have finally been issued on BR-Klassik.

I do not think Schubert’s Ninth has ever been more beautifully played and recorded than on this gold standard Deutsche Grammophon release.

Michael Cookson



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