thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in C major D 944 (1825-6) [61:08]
Brandenburger Symphoniker/Peter Gülke
rec. 2017, location not given.
Reviewed in SACD stereo. MDG9012053-6 SACD [61:08]
Peter Gülke’s well-written and scholarly booklet note for this release is an education in its own right, and his depth of knowledge about Schubert and this work in particular is reflected in a performance of very high quality indeed.
Gülke makes much mention of Beethoven’s influence on Schubert, and this ‘Beethovenian’ aspect of the work informs his interpretation. The orchestral sound, with rumbling timpani and sturdy brass, lends itself to a first movement whose motivic development becomes something granite-like and imperturbable. While the winds, brass and timpani are not recorded forwardly in the balance they do however overpower the strings at times, and this takes something away from the inner drama of the music. Features such as repeated notes and other rhythmic details can become lost, and this is surprising for a record label that makes much of its sound quality. The orchestral sound is certainly natural and realistic, but not particularly transparent.
The Andante con moto has a good forward momentum and is well played, but again with quite a boomy drum sound at times, and the woodwinds certainly larger in scale than the upper strings, though these are distinctive enough when their dynamic is raised. I don’t particularly want to bore on about the sound balance but I found myself wondering as much about why this wasn’t working for me as well as I’d expected, as I did about the music itself.
Tempi are uncontroversial throughout this performance, and the Scherzo is lively enough, and given plenty of bite without over-cooking Schubert’s Viennese elegance. The Allegro vivace finale has excitement but not a huge amount of bounce, and it was at this point that I was forced to the conclusion that whatever hall this recording was made in was colouring the sound just enough to make everything just a bit harder for everyone than the ideal. Listening a bit off axis can be revealing in this regard, with the overall effect showing where reflections are favouring certain resonances over others. This is not an extreme effect and this is still a very serviceable recording, but in my view reduces its attractiveness in a highly competitive market.
Frequently recorded works such as this are bound to have competition, and I have had another two SACD versions knocking around my collection for a while. Jonathan Nott with the Bamberger Symphoniker on the Tudor label (review, single disc and review, box set) is very well played and recorded and highly recommendable, though ultimately I found the distinctive character and more opulent sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker on their own label conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt marginally preferable (review). The BIS label has the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, which is a bit of an outlier but manages to have both grandeur and chamber-music intimacy. All of these have better clarity of sound than this MDG release, and the Harnoncourt in particular has much more inner life. Peter Gülke’s Schubert has much that can be admired, but for me is alas not memorable enough to go very high on the big wobbly heap of choices.
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