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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 3 in D, D 200 [22:15]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D 485 [27:13]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 ‘Unfinished’ [24:22]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, Town Hall, Birmingham, UK

Edward Gardner was the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor between 2010 and 2016. Theirs was one of those partnerships that clearly ‘clicked’ from the start, and I am delighted to note that it is still ongoing: Gardner is returning to Birmingham to conduct two programmes this coming June, and the present Schubert release is programmatically labelled: “Schubert Symphonies, vol.1”. In recording terms, the CBSO/Gardner axis has so far borne fruit primarily in works by Mendelssohn: four CDs of his music appeared between 2014 and 2015, encompassing the five symphonies, the violin concerto, the music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and some overtures. All were enthusiastically reviewed, not least by my MWI colleagues: Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 & Volume 4.

I am tempted to speculate, only semi-facetiously, whether the (presumably) projected Gardner Schubert cycle may be the first to fit the whole canon of eight symphonies on to just three CDs: certainly it is good going to accommodate nos 3, 5 and 8 comfortably enough on a single disc, especially given that all exposition repeats in the outer movements are observed. This is possible, of course, only because Gardner’s speeds are consistently on the fast side, in line with an approach to Schubert performance that is thoroughly ‘historically informed’. So we have a modestly sized orchestra, minimal vibrato, prominent winds, some occasional sharp accents, and an overall – and very welcome – sense that this music is to be situated firmly in the first quarter of the nineteenth century (even the ‘Unfinished’ dates to no later than 1822, some five years before the death of Beethoven).

Rather to my surprise, the work in which this approach seemed to me to pay off most consistently was the ‘Mozartian’ Fifth. Sometimes this miraculous early masterpiece can be made to sound rather sweeter and serenely untroubled than it really is; but not here. Gardner’s performance is vigorous and strong, at times reminding the listener as much of Beethoven as of Mozart; but, at the same time, it loses nothing to other versions one has heard in terms of rhythmic alertness and elegance of phrasing. And the speeds really work, especially perhaps that for the slow(ish) movement, which is marked “andante con moto” and played as such here. To my ears many other conductors have tended to dwell on this music to its detriment, typically clocking up times for it of between ten and eleven minutes. Gardner, who comes in at 8:13, seems to me to get it just right. In the outer movements, too, the playing has a lithe and animated quality, but sufficient time is nevertheless allowed for the music to breathe.

The dividing line between a ‘bracing’ speed and a ‘hectic’ one is of course a very narrow and entirely subjective one. My personal reaction as a listener was that, in the Fifth, Gardner remains on the right side of that line but, in the Third, ventures just over it, at least in the outer movements. As played here, these convey an energetic youthfulness which is entirely appropriate for a work by an eighteen-year-old composer; and it’s a youthfulness which – thanks above all to some highly characterful woodwind playing – can wax at times delightfully playful. For me, though, Gardner does not always allow quite enough room for the symphony’s abundant charm to make itself fully felt in the way that, say, Abbado or Sir Colin Davis are able to. That said, I greatly enjoyed his way with the “allegretto” second movement, here dispatched in an invigorating four minutes – plenty enough for a movement that ought never to be allowed to sound like an “adagio” or even an “andante”, but in practice quite often is.

And so to the programme’s climax, the great ‘Unfinished’. Again we have an exposition repeat and flowing speeds – though I note that Gardner’s overall timing is not significantly out of line with that of a good few others. With so familiar a piece as this, most listeners will of course come with preconceived ideas about what is likely to constitute a successful performance. In the interests of full disclosure, I have three: the ‘Unfinished’ must never be allowed ever to sound anything like some mid-nineteenth century example of proto-Wagnerian gloop; conductors must never surrender to the temptation to rush their fences, especially in the first movement; and I should be left with a sense of closure and completeness, rather than mourning the absence of a third and fourth movement which Schubert clearly, and for whatever reason, did not feel able satisfactorily to supply.

Obviously I can’t speculate on what your ‘red lines’ might be, but I can say that Gardner passes mine with flying colours. His whole approach is one that ensures Schubert is permitted to keep at least one foot in the ‘classical’ period; his performance has a cumulative power, allowing for a marked extra edge of mystery and tumult in the first movement’s development section and a poignant sense of melancholy, almost of despair, in its coda; and, yes, you certainly don’t reach the end of the disc feeling that your ‘Unfinished’ experience has been an incomplete or frustrating one. Just occasionally I felt that Gardner slightly overdid the use of expressive rubato, and of course no performance of so supreme a work as this can cover all the bases or provide all the answers. But no-one is likely to end up disappointed, uninvigorated or indeed unchallenged by the new Chandos version.

Throughout the disc the CBSO’s playing is sensationally fine – responsive, virtuosic and tonally beautiful. Particular plaudits should go to the superlative woodwind section, but the ‘Unfinished’ in particular makes you aware of the strengths also of the cellos and the horns. These days, post-refurbishment, Birmingham Town Hall has a good acoustic, at least for ensembles of moderate size; and it is well captured here in a recording of exceptional clarity and wide dynamic range.

We are only on volume 1 of the “Schubert in Birmingham” project, so it is far too early to predict how it might develop or compare with other established cycles. Already, though, we can say that Gardner and the CBSO offer well-considered, well-played and rather fast ‘modern’ performances, historically informed but not dogmatically so, and succeeding well in balancing the lyrical and dramatic sides of Schubert’s musical personality – with a slight bias, perhaps, towards the latter. I can well imagine myself wanting, eventually, to have the full set alongside one or more of slightly more ‘traditional’ performances – such as those of Davis or (my personal benchmark for about 30 years now) GŁnter Wand.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Michael Greenhalgh

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