Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Rendering (after Schubert Symphony No. 10 in D major, D936a) (1988-89) [33:37]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 “Great” (1825-26) [44:45]
Solistes Européens, Luxembourg/Christoph König
rec. Grand Auditorium, Philharmonie Luxembourg, date not given
RUBICON RCD1025 [78:31]
This is a logical coupling that has not appeared on disc together before because a single CD cannot usually accommodate the “Great” C major Symphony and another substantial work. König accomplishes this with nearly all the repeats omitted in the symphony and tempos that are on the fast side of the normal range. One could argue that this symphony of “heavenly lengths” has lost something of its “bigness” this way. After all, the “Great” C major symphony earned its sobriquet as a contrast to Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, the “Little” C major. Still I have often found the work when played with all or even most of the repeats rather tedious, depending on the performance, and König’s view is very refreshing and spirited. When I want to listen to a lengthier version, I can always turn to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) - my benchmark - to Abbado with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG), or the idiosyncratic Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Warner), among others.
I had not heard König’s orchestra before and there is no information in the disc’s booklet about him or the musicians. One is directed to the Rubicon website for that. In any case, the orchestra plays splendidly, with special praise due for the woodwinds and horns. The unison horns at the beginning of the work are as beautiful as I have ever heard them, even if their dynamic is a bit above the piano marked in the score. I found the whole performance quite infectious.
The main reason for rejoicing, however, is the eloquent account of Berio’s wondrous realization of Schubert’s Tenth Symphony, Rendering. Schubert left only piano sketches for three movements and some indications of orchestration. While other hands have attempted to complete these in a formal symphony, Berio came up with an ingenious solution of restoring the sketches and filling in the gaps with his own music. His “interludes” are mostly quiet and employ the celesta to create an otherworldly effect. As Berio himself noted, he treated the sketches as a fresco without “trying to disguise the damage that time has caused, often leaving empty patches in the composition.” The result is indeed a finished composition, ostensibly a symphony in three movements. The first movement begins with a march-like theme that is immediately memorable, while the lyrical second theme is one of those ineffably beautiful melodies that only Schubert could write. The second movement is darker in its B minor key beginning with the solo oboe, but flows with its Andante con moto marking. It leads directly into the joyous finale that includes fugal treatment of its first subject. Rendering is without a doubt my favourite of all Berio’s realizations of other composers’ music. It has had a number of recordings and continues to be performed in the concert hall.
Of the three accounts with which I am familiar, I have no hesitation in rating König’s above the others. I first became acquainted with the piece on Riccardo Chailly’s recording with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (Decca) and later Christoph Eschenbach’s with Orchestre de Paris (Ondine). Both of these have much to offer, particularly owing to other works on their respective CDs. Chailly includes additional Berio orchestral transcriptions, while Eschenbach’s contains the composer’s last composition, Stanze for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Chailly’s Rendering is a straightforward affair, played well and recorded with great clarity that allows one to hear all kinds of detail in the orchestration. Eschenbach’s, on the other hand, has greater spontaneity and more flexible tempos. His orchestra is, if anything, superior to Chailly’s, and the recording is warmer with a more blended sound. König’s, though, contains the best of both. He does not seem as metronomic as Chailly, yet is more scrupulous than Eschenbach. His orchestra performs at least as well as Eschenbach’s and has arguably the best sound of all—allowing both clarity and warmth. As in the Schubert, the woodwinds and horns are outstanding. In every way, König’s is an eloquent rendering.
Christoph König contributes his own sufficiently detailed and well-written notes in the disc’s booklet. According to the Rubicon website, the Solistes Européens, of which König is principal conductor and music director, are composed of Europeans from the “best orchestras of the old continent who have been meeting regularly in Luxembourg for more than 25 years.” They have issued an earlier CD containing Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony paired with Méhul’s Symphony No. 1, which I have not heard, but which has been well received. Based on this Schubert/Berio disc, I hope to hear more from them soon.