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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944 ‘Great’ (1828) [60.22]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 1 & 2 February 2018, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900169 [60.22]

Under its chief conductor Mariss Jansons, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks turns its attention to Schubert’s eternally popular Symphony No. 9 known as the ‘Great’ C major. Using the German numbering system, the album cover names the symphony as No. 8 in accordance with the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe (New Schubert Edition) complete catalogue of works. Sometimes the ‘Great’ C major is coupled on a single CD with the Symphony No. 8 ‘Unfinished’ but the playing time here of 60.22 doesn’t allow sufficient room for that.      

In his personal letters, Schubert described the ‘Great’ C major, completed in 1828, as “a grand symphony.” The score is widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of the classical symphonic tradition. The late conductor and renowned Schubert authority Nikolaus Harnoncourt enthusiastically described it as “a colossal edifice in which Schubert remakes the symphony… anyone who has experienced this masterpiece is no longer the same as before.”

This captivating and uncommonly fresh reading from Mariss Jansons is clearly a labour of love which combines glorious drama and deep compassion in turn from the Bayerischen Rundfunks. Immediately engaging the listener right from those splendid opening horn calls, with their distinct Wagnerian influence, the first movement Andante – Allegro ma non troppo is rendered with warm assurance. In the Andante I relished the invigorating encounter between the primarily pastoral quality of the fresh outdoors, the sunny march theme and the daring dramatic extremes. The dance melodies in the animated Scherzo are infectiously played, with polish, spirit and model bite. Engagingly expressive in the bold, courageous Finale: Allegro Vivace Jansons exercises judicious control as the movement flows with pulsating energy towards its conclusion. This was recorded live in the splendid acoustic Herkulessaal, Munich; I have no problems whatsoever with the quality of the sound, which is impressively clear and well balanced with virtually no extraneous noise. At the conclusion the audience bursts into enthusiastic applause but I could do without the individual doing the yelling. Jörg Handstein has written an interesting and undemanding booklet essay entitled ‘The Finished’.  

This recording of the ‘Great’ C major competes with a wealth of rival accounts in the catalogue and stands up to comparison with the finest of them. The single standout recording in my collection is Claudio Abbado’s captivating account with the Orchestra Mozart, assembled from live concerts in 2011 at Bologna Auditorium Manzoni and Bolzano Auditorium, Italy. It has a wealth of orchestral detail is quite beautifully played and recorded on Deutsche Grammophon. For those requiring the complete Schubert symphonies, the competition is still extremely tough; however, I can recommend four impressive sets. My first choice is also on Deutsche Grammophon: a reissued set that can be obtained comparatively cheaply, with Karl Böhm conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker, recorded in 1963/71 in the exceptional acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. As a Schubert conductor, Böhm has few peers; these are typically warm and polished performances. Another marvellous set from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Nikolaus Harnoncourt was recorded live in 2003/06 at Philharmonie, Berlin, on the orchestra’s own label, and released in 2015. An advocate of historical performance practice, the meticulous Harnoncourt made lengthy and serious study of Schubert’s own manuscripts, removing the inauthentic revisions that have become part of the scores. From start to finish the well-prepared Berliner Philharmoniker plays magnificently under Harnoncourt with a sense of spontaneity that carries the listener along on an enthralling journey. There is also an excellently played and recorded set conducted by István Kertész and the Wiener Philharmoniker recorded in 1963/71 at the Sofiensaal, Vienna on Decca. Finally, 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 Maazel in 2001 at the Prinzregententheater, Munich and after well over a decade were finally issued on the BR-Klassik label.

Mariss Jansons presides over an uncommonly engaging performance of Schubert’s uplifting ‘Great’ C major symphony. This is great music-making of unshakable conviction.

Michael Cookson



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