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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphonies - Volume 1
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D200 (1815) [22:15]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816) [27:13]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, Unfinished (1822) [24:22]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Town Hall, Birmingham, 2018
CHANDOS CHSA5234 SACD [74:11]

Edward Gardner begins his cycle of Schubert symphonies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the shortest, Symphony 3, its four movements concluded in less time than the Unfinished’s two. Not a bad thing, because its structure and argument is terser than that of the first two symphonies and thereby creates a stronger impression. You feel Schubert is enjoying himself, as are Gardner and the CBSO. After the opening thunderous volley of the keynote D there are the deliciously soft hemidemisemiquavers in the violins’ rising figures to enjoy which soon form part of a purposeful tutti rise. This is the first part of the introduction. The second part (tr. 1, 0:57) has the clarinet and flute even softer rising, capped by a falling two-note phrase (1:08) which, as Bayan Northcott’s excellent booklet notes point out, is a cyclic device that punctuates both themes as the movement continues before braying triumphantly in the horns in this recording in the coda (7:56); what a ball they have. The first theme is also in two parts: an invitation to merriment from the clarinet starts the Allegro main body of the first movement, but its resolute continuation in an extended rising phrase on strings and woodwind (2:14) is the real McCoy. The clarinet then has a proper theme, the second (2:46) and it skips along here. This is splendid, spirited playing which is clearly going places. Come the development, you might feel that the sforzandos (from 5:17) might have more punch, as they do from 5:50, but that’s when Schubert adds the brass for keeps and the loud climax shortly later is given full measure. You also notice, with the alert directness of Gardner’s account, that Schubert continues to develop the first theme during its recapitulation.

I compared the first SACD cycle by the Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott, Symphony 3 recorded in 2003 (Tudor 7141). Timing the first movement at 9:57 to Gardiner’s 8:34, Nott seems to me a little disadvantaged. His introduction takes 2:21 alongside Gardner’s 1:47. His opening blast on D is more soberly formal, the first part of the introduction carefully crafted, the second an anxious exploration. His Allegro is crisply articulated but there’s a preening quality to the second theme, less blithe and attractive than Gardner’s. Nott does bring a touch more bite to the sforzando chords, but the further development of the first theme in the recapitulation is conveyed for me in too severe a manner.

To the second movement intermezzo Gardner brings a deft nonchalance which I find very agreeable. This points up the beguiling placement and intricate manoeuvring of all its elements: the straightforward, yet genially tripping theme, the melodic echoing and rhythmic displacement between the instrumental parts and flecks of colour in the contrasts of scoring. It’s all deliciously light yet avoids being twee: a touch arty, yes, but so is Schubert’s craft Gardner reveals. The clarinet tune in the central section is more florid in its folksiness. Northcott’s notes helpfully alert us to a bittersweet chromatically spiced passage (tr.2, 2:08) between the two sections, whose yearning passes in a trice. In this movement Nott, timing at 4:31 to Gardner’s 4:04, lingers a little longer. Nott brings more swing to the first theme but also more deliberation. His clarinet theme is more bucolic and he makes the central section blossom more, but thereby loses Gardner’s delicacy. I prefer the latter’s softer projection of unassuming blitheness, smoother unfolding of phrasing in the opening section and more sophisticated first violins’ embellishing comments on the clarinet theme (from 1:41 in Gardner’s recording).

The third movement is marked Minuet but is really a buoyant Scherzo, full of bounce and bluster from Gardner yet its Vivace applied at a pace which prevents it from becoming bullish. Much is made of the contrast between loud and soft phrases so the soft seem a second countryfolk celebration at some separation from that in the foreground. It’s this distanced celebration, even to the extent of its accents, that comes to the fore at the beginning of the second strain. Gardner’s Trio features another kind of distancing: a distinctively more sophisticated manner from oboe and bassoon in duet, emphasised by a slight pause before its start and the careful observation of its opening appoggiatura. It’s arty, conscious of its own stylishness. Nott’s Minuet is heavier in its bluster and while his soft passages are graceful, they’re not so light as Gardner’s as if here’s a group rather intimidated by the loud proceedings. Nott’s Trio, however, is more attractively carefree, with a bit more swing, timing at 1:03 to Gardner’s 1:08, as if this couple has entered into the spirit of that of the main force.

The tarantella finale ingeniously blends the diaphanous and the barnstorming. Gardner demonstrates a lightness of touch yet clear contrast is everything, that contrast proving to be dynamic, rhythmic and emotional within an unwavering rhythmic propulsion. I think he’s right to understate the very loud dynamics which makes periodic blasts and coda whooping it up all the more relished. The second theme (tr. 4, 0:51) is nothing more than a four-note rising phrase followed by a two-note falling one, spiced by the continuous exchange of these phrases between strings and woodwind. Ultimately the two phrases dovetail with the second rising in the woodwind. Timing at 6:21 to Gardner’s 5:51, Nott’s Presto Vivace has rather less fizz. He’s also light, but his meticulous observation of accents and handling of the frequent crescendo stimuli brings an undue smidgen of formality. Come the second theme, for me his cellos and basses’ first three contributions are too weighty, though later they have an admirably suave firmness. Overall Gardner’s performance of the symphony is more invigorating, promoting the work be better known.

Symphony 5 is well known and loved, the most lightly scored of his symphonies with only one flute, no clarinets, trumpets or drums. It’s unsurprisingly then the most pastoral, but how far? Gardner presents it light and trim, not so much Arcadia as a place where you can cheerfully go about your business. I like his softening of a repeat of one phrase (tr.5, 0:15) in the first theme to stop things becoming too uniform and also the second time (0:37) it comes in modified form, making for a spirited contrast immediately after when the later section of the opening theme begins loud. The second theme (1:06) is all elegance and a little wistful at first in the strings, but more perky when the woodwind soon intervene. The stylish dovetailing between woodwind and strings by Gardner (1:15 to 1:21) is delightful. The development’s changes of mood are handled with assurance: feathers are clearly ruffled but lovingly smoothed back into shape. A lovely hush is achieved for the welcome recapitulation with a more contented second theme beginning this time. The coda celebrates positive fulfilment rather than triumph.

Nott’s Symphony 5 was recorded in 2003 (Tudor 7143). His first theme isn’t quite as light as Gardner’s yet has a blithe spring. He makes no softening of any repeated phrases but the later section of the opening theme is stirringly articulated. His second theme is dreamier, flows less well than Gardner’s and seems a bit studied, if anything the woodwind entry makes it dozier. Nott’s development is attractively contrasted, though less assured than Gardner’s, his recapitulation pleasantly gentle but without the hush Gardner achieves. Nott’s coda is more triumphant except for rather limp closing two chords. I prefer the more perspectived Chandos sound and its lighter bass to the ‘in your face’ Tudor.

The pastoral idyll that’s the slow movement Gardner begins softly with an unassuming grace. A 4-demisemiquaver figure that signals a pause, a quaver rest, for taking things in, comes at the mid-point and end of the first strain, heard first time just on strings then repeated with wind added. It’s tricky if Schubert’s Andante con moto marking is followed, yet Gardner makes it sound like an exquisite shimmer of sunlight, while the woodwind add freshness. The marvel of this movement is the density of texture Schubert achieves by the echoing of elements of the themes between the parts. You can hear this at the start of the second strain (tr.6, 0:26) when the first violins, flute and oboes state, and the lower strings and bassoons echo, the start of the theme, after which the echoing patterns between instruments constantly evolve. Gardner unveils this density stylishly. Really magical, however, is the way the second theme floats in (2:17) and is dovetailed in the duet between first violins and woodwind. This is raptly conveyed by Gardner. At the same time the sforzandos that usher in the development and its progress bring a piquant contrast of facing challenge head-on yet coping with it. The recapitulation of the opening theme comes with additional 4-demisemiquaver elaboration, deftly handled, as you’d by now expect from Gardner, just as you would a smooth and assured brief coda.

Nott, timing the movement at 9:36 to Gardner’s 8:13, emphasises the first element of Andante con moto. His 4-demisemiquaver figures are pleasingly ornate but lack Gardner’s sparkle, the sense of a change in the environment, and for me Nott’s scrupulous clarification of the accents makes the first theme self-conscious. However, its second strain is savoured affectionately. The presentation of the second theme is finely balanced but there’s not the thrill Gardner brings. If you prefer a relaxed recapitulation at ease with itself Nott does this admirably: after hearing Gardner I just find Nott rather plodding.

The Minuet is really a scherzo and a charade in G minor: it uses the Sturm und Drang conventions of tragedy, especially the tutti sforzando chords in the second half of the second strain, in mockery. Its true message is in the G major Trio, that all will eventually be serene. Gardner’s presentation encourages us to anticipate this. You couldn’t say his severe opening statement isn’t firm, yet neither is it forceful. He makes very clear the sweep of the crescendo rise in the second violins and violas (tr.7, 0:10) and adopts a more skipping than trenchant manner thereafter. Much of his second strain is sleek, airy and musing. Gardner relaxes a shade more to emphasise the balminess of the Trio with a fruity first bassoon the master of ceremonies. In Nott’s Minuet the atmosphere is one of gravitas. Nevertheless, in the second strain this more dramatic approach allows a vivid shaping of the melodic line and dynamics, so the sighing high register first violins before the return of the prevalent severity appear to be trying to escape from it. Gardner treats those violins differently (0:55), making them sweep with a crescendo into the following loud passage. This is one example of interpretive flair with which I don’t agree. We’re at the end of a passage Schubert marks p and I think Nott is more effective in keeping it so. Nott’s Trio is as warm as Gardner’s, maybe even more so as the horns are more prominent.

Schubert’s layout of the finale’s first theme is unusually elaborate. The opening presentation is of Haydnesque unobtrusive neatness and sense of form. This is followed by a second strain which gradually develops into a spirited loud cheer with tremolando violins. This second strain’s growing excitement is repeated and furthered in a second part of the first theme which, with sforzandos and a bold rising motif plus scales, becomes all high spirits. This allows for a contrastingly soft second theme (tr.8, 1:15) before a tripping series of tumbles makes a contrasted transition to a triumphant return of the rising motif to keep the exhilaration the chief focus. Gardner begins nifty and exuberant, with a sweep in the second strain that is bold in attitude yet light in articulation. His second theme is sheeny without loss of momentum, the CBSO strings with almost a period instrument glint. But he misses an opportunity to highlight the surge of the second part of the first theme by, at 2:37, not repeating the second strain in the exposition repeat, though the Bärenreiter urtext notes this should be done. Another reason for doing so is to take the emphasis away from the first strain, because the marvellous moment of this movement is when in the development (3:55) that first strain returns, modified, to take on heroic proportions, which nevertheless Gardner then lets shine forth in full lustre. But overall I can’t think of a more spirited and vivacious account of sunshine and brio of this symphony. Nott, timing the finale at 9:21 to Gardner’s 6:52, must be one of the slowest accounts of it. There’s gain in the clarity of vertical detail but loss in the progression of the horizontal line which alongside Gardner’s seems rather stolid, though there is verve in the key tuttis. Gardner’s tripping tumbles from Nott seem like tiptoeing on eggshells.

Symphony 8 is the most performed and recorded of all Schubert’s symphonies, mainly because its gripping quality from the outset is quite new in his symphonies. Gardner’s opening on the cellos and basses is really very soft as marked, as if from the depths of the earth and that’s strictly the first theme. It’s followed by tingling semiquavers pulsating in the violins creating an atmosphere of fear beneath what’s a subsidiary, but the first sustained, theme on first oboe and first clarinet, the oboe giving it a keening quality. Bassoons, horns and the third trombone join these wind instruments and the strings in a first sforzando which acknowledges the terror that has always been lurking. Soon, as the theme extends, there’s a tutti two sforzandos, adding the previously unheard 2 flutes, second oboe, first and second trombones and timpani. Gardner makes these strikingly powerful: brief, loud, not hugely weighty but full of menace. We need a second theme to calm our nerves and it comes in a roseate tune for cellos in G major (tr. 9, 1:18), gentle and assuaging, even more beguiling when repeated by the CBSO violins in octaves, but it stops in mid-flight. Silence, then tutti sforzandos, incorporating strings’ tremolandos of doom. The second theme continues as before, yet quickly becomes more bullish in the light of circumstances, proceeding to produce its own sforzandos of defiance. Tranquillity returns in variations on the second theme (2:43) expatiated by intertwining strings and woodwind. It’s a lovely passage, gorgeously played and balanced by Gardner, but terminated by another doom sforzando which completes the exposition. Gardner (3:12) correctly makes its marked repeat though Maurice Brown in his BBC Music Guide Schubert Symphonies argues that this is ‘to destroy the balance of the movement and to nullify its inexorable progress to the development section.’ I’m inclined to agree because the changes already experienced, once known, have less impact. Yet what still has impact is the development, beginning again with the subterranean theme but immediately working its first three notes into an anguished cry, and now fortissimo outbursts punctuate interludes of exhaustion before, at the climax, a macho version of the full opening theme takes command. As with the defiance in the exposition, there’s a thrill of engagement in Gardner’s performance. In this recapitulation it’s the subsidiary theme and second theme that return, but that first theme comes back in the coda (12:14) and looks like it will climax positively, only to continue ruminating on its opening three notes, transfixed by a sorrow for which the four ff closing chords succeed only sketchily in proving closure.

Nott’s Symphony 8 was recorded in 2003 (Tudor 7141). His opening theme has a stealthy, uncanny nature but the early sforzandos, while firmly marked, don’t quite have the impact in context that Gardner’s do. This might be because of his emphasis on the latter aspect of Schubert’s marking Allegro moderato, timing the movement at 16:20 to Gardner’s 13:31. Nott’s tempo initially works well for the second theme which is relaxed, warm and lilting but the later effects seem more theatrically posed, the tutti sforzandos and strings’ tremolandos all blustering weight, the intertwining strings and woodwind rather wooden. The anguished cry in the development is well sustained, the first theme climax is grand and stern. In the coda, like Gardner, Nott finds an eloquent sorrow, but his closing chords are authoritatively determined to beat it down. A performance to respect more than love.

The positive takes hold from the opening of the serene slow movement. Its foundation is 3 rising wind chords against 7 falling pizzicato double bass notes which introduce and punctuate the main theme on hushed strings, a lovely hush from Gardner too. The first tutti features rather formal loud strings with marked accents but Gardner avoids making them pompous so we can rather attend to the wind glowing above them. Magic moment number one is the transition on pp sustained first violins to usher in the second theme on clarinet (tr. 10, 2:14) in breathtakingly poised playing here with the final long note truly dying away as marked, so you wonder if it’s still there. The following bright and pukka oboe solo has the easier task of repeating the opening but adding a pleasurably rising and falling cadence then passed to a softer flute and even softer oboe return as if dancing into the distance. Foreground reality intrudes in a second tutti of ff accented strings offering a counterpoint to the second theme presented ff in the wind with volleys of timpani. Is Schubert trying to transform this theme into the ugliest light? Gardner doesn’t hold back but the counterpoint tempers this. Soft cellos and double basses take up an elaboration of the theme shadowed by violins and via briefer wind exchanges all is well for the first horn’s repeated octave descents to smooth our path to the recapitulation. Schubert proceeds to a conventional yet attractive closure, but then comes magic moment number two. A ppp first violins’ introduction has clarinets and bassoons bringing back the first theme so cherished it must return. This is gloriously done in beautifully controlled playing.

Nott’s slow movement, timing at 11:52 to Gardner’s 10:45, puts less emphasis on the latter element of Schubert’s Andante con moto marking. Serenity is thus very evident from the outset but not Gardner’s tranquillity: in the gleam of Nott’s first violins I found myself more conscious of projection than feeling. Nott’s accents in the loud first tutti are heavier than Gardner’s so the wind glow is less clear. Gardner handles both magic moments with rapt spontaneity, of desire at that very moment, though Nott’s clarinet and oboe solos are movingly heartfelt. In the second tutti Nott makes the strings’ counterpoint a throbbing spur to the rest to fiery outcome. In that passage beginning with the soft cellos and double basses Nott is clear and neat but how more vividly Gardner (3:42) interrelates and progresses the transfer of melody so the cellos seem to inspire the violins to soar. Gardner creates the most sensitive and satisfying account of the Unfinished I have ever heard.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 



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