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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 CD stereo

Music, with Schubert at its heart, is my daily bread. Schubert has been my constant companion. For me, he was the personification of music.” Nikolaus Harnoncourt

In 2015 Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings released the ‘Franz Schubert Edition’ containing live performances under Nikolaus Harnoncourt of the complete Symphonies, the late Masses No’s 5 and 6 and a concert performance of the opera ‘Alfonso und Estrella’. A high-end product the hardcover edition contains 8 audio CDs, a single Pure Audio Blu-ray disc, a download code for high resolution studio master audio files and a video interview with conductor Harnoncourt (review). Since the release of the ‘Franz Schubert Edition’ Harnoncourt, who had recently retired from conducting, died in March 2016 aged 86. The Berliner Philharmoniker held Harnoncourt in high regard awarding the conductor the Hans von Bülow medal in 2000 and granting him honorary membership in 2014.

Now newly issued here are those live Harnoncourt performances of the 8 Symphonies only, taken from the ‘Franz Schubert Edition’ on a 5 CD (hybrid-SACD) box set. I notice there is also a vinyl edition of the 8 symphonies available as a limited collector’s edition on 8 LPs. Employed throughout the sets is the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe system favoured in Germany numbering the symphonies as 1-8 rather than the more usual UK/American scheme using the numbering 1-6, 8 and 9. With the German scheme, there is a Symphony No. 7 as the Symphony No. 8 ‘Unvollendete/Unfinished’ becomes No. 7, the Symphony No. 9 ‘Große/Great’ becomes No. 8 and there is no Symphony No. 9.

Berlin born and bred in Styria, Austria, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a conductor particularly known for his historically-informed performances and in 1953 founded the period-instrument group Concentus Musicus Wien. A fervent Schubert devotee Harnoncourt said in 1997 “Schubert is the composer who is closest to my heart.” My first comprehensive exposure to Harnoncourt conducting Schubert was in 2005 with his reissued live set of the complete Schubert symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recorded in 1992 at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam coupled with the 2 Overtures in the Italian Style on Warner Classics.

For an orchestra firmly rooted in the Austro/German, Classical/Romantic tradition it was surprising for Rudolf Wetzal, who played bass with the Berliner Philharmoniker, to explain that except for the ‘Unfinished’ and ‘Great’ the orchestra had “played so little Schubert in the past.” It is certainly the case that the early Schubert symphonies are often grievously overlooked as lesser examples of Schubert’s symphonic writing. Nevertheless, the Berliner Philharmoniker has steadfastly championed Schubert in the recording studio with sets of the complete symphonies under Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm and Daniel Barenboim.

Sounded out as a possible guest conductor by orchestra management during Karajan’s time as chief conductor Harnoncourt first worked with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991. He knew this famous Berlin orchestra well performing 29 concert programmes and giving over 90 concerts in Berlin and Salzburg. Meticulous by nature, wherever possible Harnoncourt made lengthy and serious study of Schubert’s own manuscripts removing the unauthentic revisions that have become part of the scores. Under Harnoncourt the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded Schubert’s 8 symphonies at live concerts over three seasons 2003-06 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Although the players use modern instruments Harnoncourt adopts certain aspects of the broad model of period informed practice that he believes comes closest both technically and stylistically to Schubert’s true intentions. Despite Harnoncourt’s extensive research there is nothing academic or stuffy here with these constantly enjoyable performances containing a fresh and spontaneous feel. When hearing these Schubert recordings, it is not surprising that Harnoncourt concentrated his rehearsal sessions on “dynamics, phrasing, tone and tempi.”

Harnoncourt makes a persuasive return to what he considers to be Schubert’s own intentions in his scores. Throughout the set Harnoncourt directs magnificent playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker and displays an impressive sensitivity to the detail in the scores that allows the listener to appreciate nuance and tone colour together with a natural flow of unforced forward momentum. Praiseworthy is the degree of rhythmic metrical and dynamic detail he uncovers which is not always evident in other readings. Without overemphasising individual instruments Harnoncourt reveals plenty of detail and surprising points. I find these to be incisive performances that seem to extend the deeply imbedded bitter-sweet quality sensibly without being excessive. In the symphonies, the stream of lyricism is paramount with Harnoncourt’s interpretations so often infused with Schubert’s innate Viennese character. The tempi changes can seem quicksilver with rhythms and accents crisply and cleanly articulated. Harnoncourt’s speeds can vary from the exceedingly brisk but never breathless to unhurried yet certainly never feeling laboured. Overall, I find these perceptively conceived accounts from Harnoncourt enable me to experience Schubert’s writing from a new perspective.

Of the earlier symphonies Symphony No. 1 from 1813 written by the 16-year-old prodigy is especially engagingly performed, infused with distinct Viennese dance elements that were inherent in the composer’s consciousness. Harnoncourt’s reading of the opening movement feels incisive and beguiles with its brilliance. I also relished the sweet and tender Andante which could easily depict a breath-taking scene on the Alpine foothills close to Schubert’s Vienna home. Composed 3 years later in 1816 the Symphony No. 4 is sometimes titled the ‘Tragische/Tragic’ for its sombre strain. Especially noticeable in the opening movement is the recurring intensifying, then relaxing, of tension that adds to the discernible tragic predilection. In the Andante the underlying melancholic rather introspective quality of the writing lays deep in Harnoncourt’s reading. By contrast the final two movements are optimistic in character especially the invigorating and determined Finale with its imposing Coda almost regal in disposition.

Regarding the enduringly admired Symphony No. 7 (No. 8) ‘Unvollendete/Unfinished’ from 1822, Harnoncourt acknowledges this iconic work 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. Immediately in the first movement Allegro moderato Harnoncourt engages the listener with Schubert’s enchanting sound world in a reading that maintains an exceptional inner tension. Remarkable in the second movement Andante con moto is the bitter-sweet quality of dramatic expression and sheer beauty that Harnoncourt imbues into the performance. Harnoncourt believes the Symphony No. 8 (No. 9) ‘Große/Great’ composed in 1825/26 is a colossal edifice in which Schubert remakes the symphony. He states, “anyone who has experienced this masterpiece is no longer the same as before.” This is a magnetic reading from Harnoncourt combining biting drama with deep sensitivity. Bold and confidently rendered in the first movement I don’t think I’ve noticed before how Wagnerian the opening horn calls sound. In the slow movement, it is easy to admire the invigorating encounter between the primarily pastoral quality of the march-like writing and the dramatic extremes. Relishing the dance melodies in the Scherzo Harnoncourt is spirited without ever feeling frantic and the bold and courageous Finale: Allegro Vivace concludes incisively with pulsating energy.

On hybrid SACDs, there are no problems whatsoever with the sonics of these live performances from the Philharmonie, Berlin, satisfyingly recorded, vividly clear with plenty of presence. There is virtually no extraneous noise and the applause has been taken out. Excellent, detailed booklet notes are provided to the high standard expected from this label.

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. Providing inspiration at every turn Harnoncourt makes a persuasive case for these treasurable Schubert symphonies.

Michael Cookson
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



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