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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphonies - Volume 2
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D. 125 (1814-15) [32:03]
Symphony No. 6 in C major, D. 589 ‘Little C Major’ (1817-18) [29:11]
Overture in D major ‘In the Italian Style’ D. 590 (1817-18) [7:21]
Overture in C major ‘In the Italian Style’ D. 591 (1817) [6:51]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2019 Town Hall, Birmingham, UK

The first volume in Edward Gardner’s traversal of the Schubert symphonies on Chandos contained Symphonies 3, 5 and 8. It was generally well received, including here at MWI (review, review). I missed it but in retrospect its positive reception is unsurprising judging by the high level of the performances on this disc.

Schubert completed the Second Symphony when he was eighteen years old. This exuberant work divulges a debt to Beethoven in the first movement exposition’s main theme, Allegro vivace; there is a striking similarity to the main Allegro theme in The Creatures of Prometheus overture and ballet score. Schubert also showed a thematic style that may be linked to Mozart’s, and a carefree manner in the spirit of Rossini. But what composer can one name who was free of influence in his youthful works? Those who know Schubert’s symphonies mainly from the Unfinished and the Great C Major will also easily identify the composer in the Second Symphony and in the other works here: most of his stylistic traits are already formed, if still evolving.

The Second Symphony is quite a joyous work – light, energetic and filled with sunlight. The first movement introduction carries the proper sense of grandeur and triumph, and then the aforementioned main theme scampers along with plenty of energy and with especially fine articulation in the string playing. The alternate theme exudes a great sense of joy. The remainder of the exposition as well as the repeat and development section go very well. Gardner’s tempi here and throughout both symphonies are slightly on the brisk side. He observes the repeats, however, so his timings compared with those of older recordings might seem on the expansive side. Observing repeats today is a fairly common practice now, but it was not so just twenty years ago and earlier.

The second movement has a pleasantly dreamy quality here, as the strings present the main theme in a silken, delicate way. Woodwinds play with the same arresting elegance, and the five variations are all splendidly realized. The brief third-movement minuet exhibits just the right mixture of humor, gruffness and gracefulness. The finale effervesces with an almost unbridled sense of playfulness and joy. It is a brilliant performance of the symphony, hardly bettered by any others I have heard.

The Sixth, which Schubert completed at the age of twenty-one, is of a similarly optimistic character. It begins with a dramatic but sunlit account of the introduction, and the ensuing exposition brims with joy and energy. Detail abounds both in the orchestra’s execution and in Chandos’s well balanced and vivid sound reproduction. Again, Gardner shapes this movement with much energy and plentiful detail to point up the music’s joyous and playful demeanor. The first-movement main theme launches as if one is awaking from a pleasant night’s sleep, as the birds – flutes here – chirp the main theme and the music takes wing. The exposition is filled with color and a kinetic vigor. Once more, Gardner and company are right on target throughout the movement.

Ditto for the ensuing panel, marked Andante. It moves along with a joyous carefree manner but shows an appropriately animated manner in its faster music. The third movement Scherzo has always struck me as having an infectious character. Its main theme is a leaping, rhythmically catchy creation that can cause the foot to tap in response. The carefree trio offers splendid contrast. In this subtly wrought, energetic performance, the music in both sections emerges with such irresistible spirit. Gardner has brilliantly imagined the finale. The orchestra plays superbly. It seems to enhance the sense of a growing momentum as the movement progresses, even if at times the music relaxes its building character for a moment. This is a splendid concluding panel to cap what is overall another impressive performance.

The two Overtures are both of a similarly happy mindset, and like the first movements of the symphonies, feature an Introduction followed by an Allegro. Gardner and company deliver these works with the same kind of scrupulous attention to detail and intelligent phrasing. The Chandos sound reproduction here and in all works is very vivid and well balanced.

Not surprisingly, there is much competition even in these two less widely played Schubert symphonies, not least because of a number of complete sets of them. Of recent vintage, Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphony Orchestra deliver fine accounts of all the Schubert symphonies in their cycle on Tudor. That said, they were not quite as spirited in this pair of symphonies as Gardner and the CBSO. There are other worthy accounts, of course, including the Abbado/Chamber Orchestra of Europe (on DG). My library contains another fine but mostly forgotten and now apparently out-of-print cycle by Peter Maag and the Philharmonica Hungarica (on Vox). But I think it is safe to say these Schubert performances are excellent, and I would be surprised if you could do significantly better with any others. Highest recommendation!

Robert Cummings

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