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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 2, D.125 (1814/15) [27:31]
Symphony No. 4, D.417 ‘Tragic’ (1816) [29:18]
Residentie Orkest The Hague / Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 2017, Atrium Meppelweg, The Hague.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.

Jan Willem de Vriend has a knack for producing lots of energy and excitement in his recordings, as evidenced by his Beethoven symphony cycle for Challenge Classics, and the 9th in particular (review). This is the first volume of a complete set of Schubert symphonies, so while it is an enticing prospect it does of course enter a market already pretty saturated with high-grade competitors.

The Residentie Orkest The Hague is currently ‘homeless’, their concert hall having been demolished to make way for a new building in the centre of town that will be both their new home and that of the Nederlands Danstheater and the Royal Conservatoire from 2021. The temporary Zuiderstrandtheater is unsuitable for recording, and I have to admit that the school-building venue used here is new to me even though I must have biked past it many times in the past. The orchestra sounds in good form in this temporary rehearsal space, which turns out to be a light and airy box that works well for this kind of music, though anything larger-scale might end up becoming a tad restricted.

Jan Willem de Vriend’s orchestral sound has an ‘authentic’ touch, with vibrato generally held to a minimum but with modern instruments. The Second Symphony has a confident Allegro vivace opening movement heralded by a slow introduction, one of Schubert’s oft-used formats. De Vriend doesn’t over-egg the lyrical nature of the Andante second movement, letting the variations flow like a conversation rather than an aria. There is drama rather than nobility in the Menuetto, which is taken at a brisk tempo and drives on with Beethovenian urgency, allowing the Trio to give us some gentler respite. The final Presto isn’t rushed but does have plenty of momentum and dynamic variety, again pushing forward the influence of Beethoven with Schubert’s harmonic excursions and working-out of all those compact themes.

The Fourth Symphony was given the subtitle ‘Tragic’ as something of an afterthought, but while this might have been more of an attempt at attention-grabbing there is indeed a feel of greater weight than the previous symphony. Although we’re advised not to read too much into any kind of literary reference there is a distinct narrative feel to this work, with even lighter movement such as the Andante having minor-key surprises and subtle harmonic wrinkles that invite theatrical associations. De Vriend is happy to bring out these features, giving the Menuetto an unexpected rhythmic swing and swagger, the Trio once again a section of relative repose after being pushed in all sorts of directions. The final Allegro gives a busy impression in this recording, but this is because we’re catching the detail in those energetic strings, textures all too often smoothed out in recordings.

As previously mentioned there are comparisons aplenty. Jonathan Nott couples the Second and Fourth symphonies in his cycle (review), offering a bigger-boned impression, with the woodwinds further forward in the balance while still managing to keep plenty of definition in the strings. Nott is a little more flexible with ritenuti in the slower movements adding extra expressive corners, and while he can be hard-hitting enough there is less Beethoven in his sound than with de Vriend. Niklaus Harnoncourt with the Berlin Philharmonic (review) is also larger in scale when it comes to tutti sections but by no means stodgy, and with nice chamber-music contrasts. You might expect the Rolls-Royce quality of the Berlin Phil to run rings around the Residentie Orkest, but this is by no means the case. In this repertoire they can very much stand their ground, and the SACD sound quality is if anything more transparent. Older school recordings such as that with Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic (review) have their place, and this is still a valuable set, although the grandeur of a movement such as the Menuetto of the Second Symphony, adding at least a minute to de Vriend’s timing, might not appeal quite so much today. Even with that fuller string sound and plenty of vibrato all over the place Böhm still keeps things light where necessary, and architecturally impressive in general. Also on Deutsche Grammophon, Claudio Abbado with The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (review) is more attractive in general, with superbly tight playing, gorgeous lyricism and that knack of keeping everything transparent as well as having plenty of drama in tempi that are a touch more measured but that are appropriate in the more resonant acoustics of the venues used for this set.

Returning to the recording at hand, there is a great deal to enjoy here, and it will be interesting to see how this cycle evolves. Well recorded and performed with a good deal of panache and certainly no fussiness this is fine pair of Schubert symphonies. Not quite as luminous as Abbado, a bit straighter than Nott but more lively than Böhm, this foundation of a Schubert symphonic ‘cycle in waiting’ is promising indeed.

Dominy Clements

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