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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, The Great (1825-8)
New York Chamber Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 10 December 1987, Manhattan Centre, New York City

For Gerard Schwarz this is “a document of the time”, now released for the first time. So, I shall compare a famous other chamber orchestra recording also made in December 1987: Claudio Abbado with The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon 4736562, download only).

In the Andante introduction, Schwarz’s famous horns’ theme opening is of fine, mellow tone, but for me too formal and the strings’ pizzicato bass podgy. Yet the woodwind repeat attractively caresses the melody and then the lower strings variation of it with the interplay between the parts is clear and melody and harmonies cherished exemplary. The first ff is broad and powerful, perhaps too beefy, but points up the woodwind’s gentle contrast. The variety and calm momentum achieved by Schwarz is very pleasing, particularly when the woodwind deliver the theme like a chorale (tr. 1, 3:23) to the violins’ deferential accompaniment in triplets. But I feel the tutti crescendo built to launch into the main body Allegro is over deliberate. Schwarz’s introduction, takes 4:16, whereas Abbado’s 3:26 brings a more effective flow to the music. His early strings’ pizzicato bass is welcomely lighter, but in the later woodwind chorale-like material his pp strings lack Schwarz’s presence. His crescendo launch is less marked and dramatic than Schwarz’s, but gains through a greater continuity of impulse.

Schwarz’s Allegro has a fair head of energy, with good strings’ thrust matching the energy of the wind. The second theme (5:07) is revealed as an invigorating new, cooler feature. The frequent three staccato crotchets taken up by many instruments in turn is commanding. Schwarz’s development is spiritedly taut. The coda (14:52) is marked faster, but you don’t feel that from Schwarz like you do from Abbado to more tinglingly tense effect. Yet Schwarz emphasises well the coda’s soft start as a platform from which the crescendi soon come to life. This broad canvas is magnificently conveyed as is the triumphant firmness of the ben marcato exulting of the horns’ theme now joined by all the woodwind. A pity those triplets at the end from horns, trombones and timpani are a shade soggy.

Abbado’s Allegro is lighter but has a fine sweep, though Schwarz brings more edge to it. Abbado’s lovely, truly soft recapitulation of the first theme is more magically telling than Schwarz’s (11:31). To the three great surges and ebbs of sound just before the coda Schwarz brings more impact than Abbado, yet Abbado’s finish is more satisfying with more emphatic crispness.

Schubert’s second movement is marked Andante con moto, Schwarz gives us a beautifully played and textured account. My problem is that this achieved idyllic state comes through conforming to dreaminess and the contrasting, punchier elements seem somewhat pulled. Still, the first theme is presented by the oboe, soon joined by clarinet, as a dance of finesse. The gentle unfolding of the second (0:54), with the same scoring, is particularly lovely as is the patient reflection of the third theme on the second violins (3:34). But when things hot up (8:38) as the trombones enter, the slowish tempo makes everything a little limp for attaining the big climax and cataclysmic silence thereafter. Yet Schwarz does well the crestfallen return of the third theme on the cellos, rescued by the oboe and then the second theme with pleasantly flowing second violins and violas’ running semiquavers. The coda I find drawn out, but Schwarz does give the ffz tuttis their full measure.

Abbado’s is a more rounded and satisfying movement because his shaping of the music is more assured and nuanced. From the start there’s more sense of pulse, the oboe cheerier, the dynamic contrasts more vivid. Abbado gives us a continual juxtaposition and conflict between the dance material and the military manner, yet brings a seamless flow to it all and shows you can have as much clarity as Schwarz but also more bite consistently throughout.

Schwarz’s Allegro vivace Scherzo is certainly frisky. Playful too, as the dancing, soft second theme (tr. 3, 0:24) finds Schwarz’s first violins and cellos rising and falling phrases niftily dovetailed so we seem to get an endless sequence of somersaults. In the Trio, which only has one theme, at the second strain ‘climax’ (8:12) Schubert adds the brass and Schwarz’s over eager trombones rather swamp the woodwind. Nevertheless, earlier in the second strain of the Scherzo Schwarz achieves a satisfying calm as the woodwind open the second theme out more singingly and sweetly (1:55). A conducting problem is the transition from Scherzo to Trio. There’s no marked change of tempo but, as the pulse of the Scherzo is dominated by the running, staccato quavers of its first theme, while that underpinning the Trio is staccato crotchets, beginning the Trio faster, as Abbado does (his introduction and first strain take 0:46 against Schwarz’s 1:05) achieves a balance between the different rhythmic structures of the movements, a feel they are at the same tempo. Schwarz observes the structures strictly and, as a result, the Trio seems slower. He obtains sonorous, mellow playing, but for me it wallows.

Schwarz’s dancing finale sports freshness and appreciably light articulation, while also being firm in dynamic contrasts and fervent swells. The challenging swirls of triplets which the strings seem to maintain almost continuously are realized with a feathery grace. Some might feel Schwarz should be more grandiose, particularly his rather solemn fz four repeated note fanfares in the coda, but inherent joy doesn’t need to be inflated. Abbado’s partying is louder, with more pizazz and his coda’s fz four repeated notes are more thrilling. But Schwarz is sprightlier and his strings’ articulation is clearer. Here, then, honours are pretty even, though overall Abbado offers a more rounded performance.

Michael Greenhalgh

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