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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Complete Symphonies
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, 1995/96
RCA RED SEAL 88875 127062 [4 CDs: 269:59]

Here re-released by Sony without a booklet, these are recordings that have been around for a while, and previously appeared in a BMG box set that Peter J Lawson reviewed positively in 2005. Sir Colin Davis was principal guest conductor with the Staatskapelle Dresden and appointed honorary conductor in 1990, the first in the orchestra’s 460-year-history.

For me it is also of interest to compare this with the Staatskapelle Dresden of a decade previously, recorded in these works conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (review). I quite like the Blomstedt recordings, though the wobbly sound of the first flute is a put-off right from the start in the Adagio introduction to the First Symphony. Sir Colin Davis puts more movement into this section, and you can hear a subtler recorded balance and greater refinement and flow of energy in both interpretation and performance. I even prefer this particular opening with Davis to that from Jonathan Nott over on Tudor (review), though as the Allegro kicks in the honours even out more. The recorded perspective and orchestral sound from the Staatskapelle Dresden is bigger and more expansive, though Sir Colin Davis’s touch with tempi and dynamics ensures that everything is lively and full of zip as well as having an appealing expressive warmth. Those gorgeous Dresden strings are luxuriant in the Andante without becoming gloopy, creating a more generous feel compared with the more intimate scene from Nott and the Bamberg players. Which you will prefer is a question of taste. Both are deeply satisfying, though I feel Davis has more the measure of the earlier symphonies when it comes to the slower music, from which you could wish an ounce or two more space or less pressure from Nott.

You will have to do some disc-hopping to do these symphonies in sequence on this set, so I’ll stick to the order as they appear. The Beethovenian character in the Third Symphony is brought out nicely by Davis, and the expressive weight of the beautifully performed first movement is counterbalanced by a genuinely carefree spirit of dance in the middle movements. With its rustic charm this is Schubert’s ‘pastoral’ symphony in Davis’s hands, rustic that is from the viewpoint of a well-educated Viennese townsman. CD 1 concludes with the ‘Unfinished’ Eighth Symphony, over which Davis takes appropriate care with detail and a patient shaping of the long first movement. The song-like nature of that main theme and the ensuing dramas unfold with a sense of scale that anticipates Bruckner, without prematurely entering that world. Schubert’s darkness here is literary and personal rather than epic and biblical, a feeling that is conveyed into an almost ethereal atmosphere at the opening of the Andante and the heroic character with which this material is contrasted further along.

CD 2 brings together the Second and Fourth Symphonies in clear-eyed and well-focussed performances that are big-hearted but unpretentious. The Staatskapelle Dresden is a Rolls-Royce amongst orchestras but even here the violins are pushed in those busy runs in the first movement of the Second Symphony. Detail and purity of delivery win through all over this set, and in this work and elsewhere the slower Andante is given its due expressive weight – delightfully shaped, but by no means an intermezzo between the more overtly impressive movements. This Menuetto is forward-looking in its stresses and accents, and the finale walks that fine line between being highly playful and rich in impact. The Fourth Symphony has the subtitle ‘Tragic’, but while there is no shortage of depth in some of Schubert’s remarkable harmonic twists Davis doesn’t ham things up, keeping something of the atmosphere of Haydn’s The Creation in its opening rather than pushing us into something overtly operatic. Minor keys keep the music stormy and eventful but Davis has the measure of all of those strange goings on in the first movement and his sense of direction is impeccable. Lovely wind solos in the Andante draw our attention away from the music’s simplicity, and the minor key second section is nicely in proportion. Being wrong-footed is a feature of this work, and nowhere more so in the offbeat emphases in the penultimate Allegro, made into a garden of amusements in this performance and creating context for the urgency of the final Allegro vivace.

CD 3 opens with the charmingly lyrical first bars of the Fifth Symphony. Davis is uncontroversial in his choices of tempi, but you could never argue that this first movement is lacking in momentum. The same goes for the Andante con moto, that manages to move along nicely without losing out in terms of expressiveness. There is a sense of individuality with each symphony, and by all means a narrative quality to the playing though this is not over-emphasised in terms of semantic gestures. The relatively dramatic Menuetto makes a good case for this balance, not skating over Schubert’s sense of drama but maintaining that sheen of cosmopolitan respectability conjured by an image of Vienna no doubt stronger today than it would have been in Schubert’s day. The Sixth Symphony or ‘Little’ is in fact no more slight in terms of scale than many of the others in this set – the name only given to distinguish it from the ‘Great’ Ninth Symphony, also in C major. The flute is a trifle too hysterical in the introduction for my taste, but as usual the quality of the playing is very fine indeed. The strings shine in that subtlest of Andante movements, and the secretive and explosive Scherzo is full of excitement. The suggestion of clocks ticking elsewhere in the work comes home to roost in the 2/4 final Allegro moderato which is great fun in this performance.

CD 4 leaves us with the “Great” C major Ninth Symphony. Once again, Davis doesn’t over emphasise the grandeur of this music, giving its expansive gestures their due, but always returning to the song-like essence of Schubert’s idiom rather than imposing too much of a late-Romantic feel on its character. It to this work that Schumann’s remark about ‘heavenly length’ in Schubert’s music was applied in his 1839 article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This is a technically demanding work but the Staatskapelle Dresden has it in their musical DNA, and we can relax into a very fine performance indeed. Comparing this to Claudio Abbado’s recently released Orchestra Mozart recording on Deutsche Grammophon (review) shows where in some aspects there are more expressive points to be made, but where Abbado points out certain details and is freer with his rubati Davis tends to allow the work to speak more for itself. Abbado gets more Viennese flair and character into the Scherzo for instance, but Davis’s version would be more danceable. All in all this is a great ‘Great’, and I would be happy to have it as a default choice.

In terms of price this has to be one of the best budget Schubert symphony cycles available. The more luxury feel of Jonathan Nott’s Bamburg set on the Tudor label with its SACD sound and chunky multi-lingual booklet has lots of appeal, with a more intimate balance and less expansive readings but in a different price class. Blomstedt’s Dresden set is equal to this Sony/RCA box with its cardboard sleeves and lack of documentation and can be had cheaply from Brilliant Classics as well as Berlin Classics. This is more Romantic in tone than Davis and not quite as refined but certainly remains a credible option, as do the rather too opulent Herbert von Karajan, the nicely Viennese Riccardo Muti, the musical but occasionally wayward Nikolaus Harnoncourt and many others. For a superbly performed, uncontroversial but highly musical set of Schubert symphonies played by one of the best orchestras on the planet, Sir Colin Davis remains a standard-bearer at any price, and this set fully deserves its sustained availability.

Dominy Clements

CD 1 [78:15]
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D82 (1811) [28:33]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D200 (1814) [22:33]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 Unfinished (1822) [27:19]
CD 2 [68:02]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D125 (1812) [34:23]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D417 Tragic (1816) [33:39]
CD 3 [61:42]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816) [29:32]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D589 (1818) [32:11]
CD 4 [62:00]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 Great (1826) [62:00]



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