Franz Schalk: The Complete Recordings
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808) [31:27]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808) [39:36]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) [24:33]
Overture, Leonore No. 3, Op. 72b (1806) [13:41]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished” D759 (1822) [20:49]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Franz Schalk
rec. Berlin, March 2, 1928 (Schubert), October 26 & 28, 1929 and January 27, 1930 (Op. 67); Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal, Vienna, April 4, 11-12 April, 1928 (Op. 68) an April 12-13, 1928 (Op. 93), April 13, 1928 (Leonore)
Issued on Odeon (Schubert), HMV D series (Opp. 68 & 93) and Electrola (Leonore and Op. 67) originals
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC451 [60:25 + 68:43]

This is a most valuable reissue of Franz Schalk’s complete studio recordings, taken down from 1928 to 1930. The Schubert “Unfinished” has been available on Symposium before (1344) but Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration is masterly. It is simply impossible to believe that this is a 1928 recording: there is proper depth to the cellos and basses at the opening, and the level of detail is remarkable. Yes, there is some upper spectrum colouring of the higher end of the violins at fortissimo at the higher registers, but it is not that disturbing. Schalk’s brisk pace for the first movement ensures the music flows. There is a slight pitch fluctuation at 3:25, but nothing really to detract from the refreshing drive of Schalk’s interpretation. The second movement contains real beauty – try the strings around 4:30 in, with the octave horn drops against this; then the delicious balancing of horns and bassoons as the opening gesture returns. The double-basses, so important to ground the sonority in this piece, are remarkably present in this entire performance. Not everything is perfect in terms of performance ensemble, but there is so much joy to be gleaned here. In terms of finding the drama in the symphony, there are parallels to the performances of GŁnter Wand (particularly a live BBCSO performance I heard in the Royal Festival Hall).

The “Pastoral” follows on from the Schubert, a perfect pairing. What is interesting here is Schalk’s way with the first movement: brisk and powerful, one can feel the crackle of energy in the air. There is very little give and take, but it must be emphasised that this is not a relentless performance. Wind come across cleanly and one can really appreciate the fantastic standard of playing here; more, the detail in the lower strings is extraordinary. Perhaps there is a whirlwind aspect to the latter stages of the first movement that some might find hard-pressed, but who can resist those occasional portamenti? The slow movement’s brook flows well, yet exudes peace; again, the level of detail and the low level of surface noise is simply extraordinary. Modern taste (and scholarship) may take exception to the portamenti, which may be considered rather syrupy, but there is no denying the prevalent freshness.

The Eighth Symphony, which begins disc two, unfortunately does not begin together (the first violins enter a fraction early), which detracts from the F-Major blaze of light. But the movement does have great energy, and the themes are well contrasted. Some of the staccatos really are staccatissimo, which gives an edge to the reading. The second movement is less successful interpretatively, as if there’s one place not to swoop with the strings, it’s here; and it requires total precision, which again is not the case. However, the third movement is lovely and contains a sterling example of the clarity that can be gleaned from historical recordings these days: listen to the presence of the staccato lower strings against the two horns in the Trio, then reread the recording date. It really is jaw-droppingly good. In direct contrast to the opening movement, the finale opens wonderfully together. It seems churlish to complain about a dry acoustic given the date, and it is clear that even that has been ameliorated by the good people at Pristine.

Separating the two symphonies on disc two is a Leonore 3, again with an opening chord that can best be described as haphazard of attack. Yet the opening diminuendo is well done, and the lower strings are very carefully balanced at lower dynamics. Later, not only is there virtually no colouring to upper registers, but the string definition and attack in the ascent that prefaces the dramatic stroke of the solo trumpet fanfare is remarkably caught.

Finally, the Fifth Symphony. One again, openings really are not Schalk’s thing, but once underway there is a pent-up energy to the reading that means that, while not blisteringly hot, certainly keeps it on the simmer throughout the lyrical sections. There is an element of uncertainty to the horn answers at around 4:14, but one accepts that as part of the performance standards of the time, perhaps. In compensation, the brief oboe cadenza is simply beautiful. The slow movement is the jewel of the performance, flowing and assured, with plenty of beautiful detail. It is puzzling as to why the horns seem so muffled and recessed in the Scherzo; but again there is a balancing factor in the clarity of the double-bass scamperings. What quite happens at the opening to the finale after an excellent preparation I remain unsure, but it is messy. No repeat, but more significantly even the coda lacks electricity.

There is no doubting the value of this issue in not only presenting a valuable historical document, but in presenting that in sound that is simply astonishing.

Colin Clarke