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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphonies Nos 1-8 (Neue Schubert-Ausgabe numbering system)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, 2003/06 Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed in SACD stereo. BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR150063 [5 SACDs: 273.00]
These Schubert symphonies from the Berlin Philharmoniker label have appeared in a bigger ‘Schubert Edition’ box with vocal works and all kinds of extras including a Blu-ray disc of the whole set (review).
Michael Cookson took a look at this five SACD disc version earlier in 2017, and I can only agree with his opinion that “under Nikolaus Harnoncourt the Berliner Philharmoniker plays magnificently from start to finish with a sense of spontaneity that carries the listener along on an enthralling journey.”
Rather than go through every symphony blow-by-blow I’ve been intrigued to compare this comparatively expensive option with the competition and see where we end up. There are a few SACD sets of Schubert’s symphonies around, the most recent I’ve had for review being that with Jonathan Nott on the Tudor label (review). This is an excellent set with superb playing throughout, but I have to admit that the Bamberger Symphoniker is sternly challenged by the Berlin Philharmonic, which has richer string sound and more convincing bass weight. This sort of thing is where A/B comparing can turn into nit-picking, but you’ll want that firm underpinning of Schubert’s harmonies in something like the ‘Unfinished’ Seventh Symphony, where Harnoncourt is a little slower than Nott but also a degree more expressive. I didn’t have this Berlin recordings to hand when reviewing the Bamberg discs, but if price is no object then I’d have to plump for this one if you want a set that’s going to bring you back for some luxuriant listening on a regular basis. This is not to dismiss the Tudor label’s set out of hand, and I’ll still want it for times when Harnoncourt’s more extreme views of the music might be a bit too much. Still with the Seventh, listen to those lovely Bamberg horns in the Andante con moto second movement, and that elegant sense of integration in Nott’s interpretation. Harnoncourt is involving in a different way, hitting the contrasts harder and making it into a much more operatic affair: gripping and more tragic, but with jack-in-a-box surprises and the occasional wilful ritenuto that may be less to your taste.
The BIS label has its SACD Schubert symphony cycle with Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (review), still only available on four single discs but worth a look if you are interested in a real contrast with the Berlin Philharmonic. Dausgaard goes in for swift tempi, the first movement of the Fifth Symphony for instance coming in at a racy 6:23 compared with Harnoncourt’s 7:56. You won’t get that plush string sound in these smaller-scale orchestral recordings, and the non-vibrato textures from the winds can end up sounding a little flat at times. Comparing the opening of the Third Symphony between Harnoncourt and Dausgaard is a real chalk and cheese affair, the latter a good 2/3rds quicker with a propellant energy that conveys urgency, where Harnoncourt hears this introduction as something more exploratory, almost like the start of Haydn’s The Creation. Jonathan Nott is more comparable to Harnoncourt in this regard.
Comparing this Berlin Philharmonic recording with Harnoncourt’s 1992 version from Teldec and now on Warner Classics with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review) is intriguing, but in terms of quality really rather like tossing a coin between a new Rolls Royce or a Bentley. Both orchestras are superb and the recordings excellent, Harnoncourt’s interpretations differing in the kind of detail and fractions that you would expect between various occasions in different venues. The Trio waltz in the third movement of the First Symphony is a for instance a little more dance like in Amsterdam, the contrasts between sweetness and drama perhaps a little more sharply etched; the opening of the ‘Great’ Symphony No. 8 growing to greater splendour from Berlin, but in Amsterdam capturing its moments of chamber-music essence. In the end it will be down to whether you prefer the sheer refinement of Amsterdam or the marginally more butch Berlin sound. The opening of the Fifth Symphony is a good case in point here, the Concertgebouw acoustic lending itself to impeccable detail from every player, the Berlin sensibility giving the music a slightly broader, more romantic effect.
If SACD audio is of no interest and you are looking for budget-price Schubert symphonies then you won’t go wrong with Claudio Abbado and his fresh and nimble sounding Chamber Orchestra of Europe (review). Also on Deutsche Grammophon is Karl Böhm with the Berlin Philharmonic from the 1960s (review) and still surprisingly clean sounding and by no means to be sniffed at, and despite the more weighty, old-school approach with timings that are not always slower than those of Harnoncourt. I still have a soft spot for Sir Colin Davis’s light touch with the Staatskapelle Dresden on its bargain RCA reissue (review).
Reviews that talk more about alternatives than the recordings to hand demand some balance of course, and after living with Harnoncourt’s Berlin set in this SACD edition for a while I can declare that, if you only want just the one all bells-and-whistles set of these works, then this will do very nicely indeed. Harnoncourt has his own way with this kind of repertoire, but you always have the sense that his details are much more in the service of a grand view of Schubert’s music than any purveying of pet perversions. Schubert’s inclinations towards the literary and the operatic are less abstract in these interpretations, and part of the joy is having one’s imagination piqued by what kind of character will appear from behind the curtain in, for instance, the Andante of the Sixth Symphony, which becomes quite the substantial narrative in Harnoncourt’s hands. The early symphonies are given their due weight in this set: not charged with too much reverence, but equally given that sense of discovery that raises their appeal with each visit. The later, greater symphonies are terrific in just about every regard. I still greatly enjoy the lean and keen sound of, for instance, Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players in their 1988 EMI rendition of the final Eighth (Ninth) Symphony, preferring its earthy honesty to the more fussy Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra revisit on SWR/Hänssler Classic, but the experience of the Berlin Philharmonic in this nearly hour-long version is one that enriches and inspires, even with those Mahlerian touches in the Scherzo. Schubert was after all a forward looking composer, and with recordings like these we find him as much at home in the 21st century as he was in the 18th.
Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82 (1813) [24.32]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, D 125 (1814/15) [35.25]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200 (1815) [24.55]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 ‘Tragische/Tragic’ (1816) [33.08]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D 485 (1816) [30.44]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D 589 (1817/18) [35.39]
Symphony No. 7 (No. 8) in B minor, D 759 ‘Unvollendete/Unfinished’ (1822) [29.58]
Symphony No. 8 (No. 9) in C major, D 944 ‘Große/Great’ (1825/26) [59.00]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live at Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
Symphonies No’s 3 and 4: 22/25 October 2003
Symphony No. 1: 22/24 April 2004
Symphonies No’s 6 and 8: 2/3 December 2004
Symphony No. 2: 14/16 April 2005
Symphonies No. 5 and 9: 22/24 March 2006