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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944 Great (1825/26) [54.53]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 Unfinished (1822) [22.07]
Wiener Symphoniker/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 15-16 November 2014 (Unfinished), 11-12 April 2015 (Great), Musikverein, Vienna, Austria

New on Wiener Symphoniker this release comprises Schubert’s two greatest and much loved symphonies: Nos 8 and 9. It is worth pointing out that the cover of this release describes the symphonies as No. 7 Unfinished and No. 8 The Great using the numbering of the revised Deutsch catalogue and the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe (New Schubert Edition) complete catalogue of works mainly used today in Austria and Germany.

With regard to the universally esteemed Symphony No. 8 Unfinished its history continues to be a matter of much debate. Schubert authority Nikolaus Harnoncourt recognises the symphony was intended as a four movement score although he is convinced there must have been a point when Schubert decided the two completed movements were perfect on their own. In the first movement Allegro moderato chief conductor Philippe Jordan ushers the listener into Schubert’s enthralling and dramatic sound-world with a reading that maintains a remarkable inner tension. Marked in the Andante con moto is the bitter-sweet quality of drama and breathtaking allure that Jordan imparts. The woodwind playing is top drawer.

Harnoncourt firmly believes that the ‘Great’ C Major is “a colossal edifice in which Schubert remakes the symphony … anyone who has experienced this masterpiece is no longer the same as before.” Schubert’s final symphony is a work the composer described in his personal letters as “a grand symphony.” Here maestro Jordan gives a disarming reading that in turn combines magnificent drama and deep compassion. It is hard to ignore the Beethovenian/Wagnerian influence on the opening horn calls. The resolute playing of the expansive opening movement is tinged with a dark hue. Jordan excels in the Andante con moto maintaining an exemplary pulse throughout. I savour the encounter between the primarily pastoral quality of the fresh outdoors and the dramatic squally extremes. The dignified march theme on the oboe is a highlight. The spirited dance melodies of the Scherzo receive polished playing and resolute bite. Jordan exercises judicious control of the bold and courageous Finale: Allegro Vivace a movement full of colourful incident that feels both compelling and expressive.

Despite its excellence this Wiener Symphoniker coupling has to compete with a wealth of rival accounts. My first choice recording for the Unfinished is from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Günter Wand: raptly beautiful playing engages the listener from start to finish. Wand was recorded live in 1995 from the Philharmonie, Berlin on RCA Victor Red Seal. My single standout recording of the ‘Great’ C Major is from Claudio Abbado with the Orchestra Mozart assembled at live concerts in 2011 at Bologna Auditorium Manzoni and Bolzano Auditorium, Italy. Recently released Abbado’s captivating DG account with a wealth of orchestral detail is quite superbly played and recorded.

On the other hand it may be more sensible to buy a complete set of the Schubert symphonies. Although the competition is extremely fierce I can suggest four recommendable boxes. My first choice is conducted 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 has few peers. He conducts typically warm and polished performances on Deutsche Grammophon. On Decca there is an excellently played and recorded set from István Kertész and the Wiener Philharmoniker recorded in 1963/71 at the Sofiensaal, Vienna.

There is a quite outstanding set from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Harnoncourt recorded live in 2003/06 at Philharmonie, Berlin on the orchestra’s own label. Harnoncourt has made lengthy and serious study of Schubert’s manuscripts removing the unauthentic revisions that have become part and parcel of the scores. From start to finish the well prepared Berliner Philharmoniker plays magnificently with a sense of spontaneity that carries the listener along on an enthralling journey. 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 them in 2001 at the Prinzregententheater, Munich and after a decade have finally been issued on BR-Klassik.

Returning to this Wiener Symphoniker release, the recording engineers can be congratulated for a satisfying sound quality that is especially clear and well balanced. Jordan draws expressive yet firmly controlled playing from his Vienna orchestra. The tempi, rhythm, phrasing and dynamics are shaped into one impressive whole. This is an engaging CD that will grace any serious collection.

Michael Cookson


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