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Schubert sys 5552282
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete Symphonies & Fragments
L’Orfeo Barockorchester/Michi Gaigg
rec. live, 2-5 May, 2018, Markus-Sitticus Saal, Hohenems, Austria
CPO 555228-2 [4 CDs: 277:25]

These performances were recorded live during the 2018 Schubertiade Hohenems, with some ‘patching’ sessions either side of the concerts themselves. Recalling my admiration of Michi Gaigg’s Schubert Fifth on DHM a few years ago, I greeted this set with great anticipation after sampling a few excerpts, but, listening more closely, was left with a sense of disappointment after No.1. After the Grand Annunciation of the introduction (The Festival Journey Begins!), this is rather cool and disengaged, lacking tautness and virtuosity, as if the orchestra aren't yet confident in their own abilities, the feel for the idiom, to project a fully-formed reading.

On to No.2, and in the remarkably elaborate first movement (all cornucopian exposition and recapitulation with a tiny anti-development) I again worried about the lack of articulacy in rapid string passages, the tendency of inner lines to fade away; but there is greater excitement and the slow movement is much better - tender and eloquent; the scherzo is stormy indeed. The finale is superbly done - the winds’ drum n’ bass textures driving home those dramatic modulations in the central episode.

In No.3, after a few days of this cycle recorded in a single week, the orchestra find the confidence to deliver a thrillingly fresh, powerful, songful account. Out-of-your-chair in acclaim!

So, live recordings with some inconsistency, but there is more to performance than polished perfection, and it was fascinating to hear the music coming together through this first group, as if forming in the creative moment, fresh off the written page; the shaping spirit growing stronger.

The René Jacobs B’Rock readings (review ~ review) are a good comparative reference and perhaps an easier recommendation: similar sonorities but obviously tauter, sharper, more articulate and on top of all the notes. But the B’Rock versions are less spontaneous, in a slightly drier, smaller acoustic, where the Orfeos are splendidly spacious and off-the-hook.

On to No 4. After the remarkable COE/Harnoncourt set on ICA a year ago (review), I didn't think I would revisit this repertoire for some years, but now with the impact of these readings….once again, I can never hear too much Schubert.

Symphonies 4 and 5 raise this cycle to new and greater heights, as, in a reading of some intensity and much risk, Gaigg finds the ominous tones in the Fourth’s introduction, then the defiant and desperate energies, the rushing toward and away from despair, with acute sensitivity to stress, phrase, colour and dynamic; those sad, drooping cadences in the Andante; sudden stabs to the musical heart in the scherzo too; thrillingly, unusually percussive effects on the orchestra in the finale. In this performance it sounds like “The Symphony of The Ride to the Abyss”…. those rasping, devastating horns! Turn it up!

The Fifth is the coin flipped, serene and songful in its first two movements, a dancing, transitional divertimento of a minuet - then a high- speed finale of almost manic joy, energy and impact. But what really impressed me was the sheer freedom of the reading (going further than that excellent DHM Fifth): tempi, phrase and paragraph daringly rubato-rich, played through and in the moment. I wondered if Gaigg and her band were not a little too fleet in the Fourth’s scherzo; but it is marked “presto” of course, and the trio is beautifully, expressively done; the contrasts vividly drawn; the same could be said of the Fifth’s minuet: this conductor really knows what she’s about; nothing taken for granted.

All through, those wind-blown period instrument textures are their own triumphant justification. About as far from familiar or comforting as you could get. But the expressive differentiation between the Fourth and Fifth is vividly drawn.

The Schubert Sixth, if it supposedly falls between the Elysian Fifth and the literally abysmal Eighth D759, can seem an odd beast: a transitional or equivocal inspiration. (The renumbering of D759 as “No.7”, and the Great C Major D944 as No.8, was surely the most confusingly misconceived of all such revisionism, especially given that we have a complete Seventh in sketch form - D729.) A “Rossinian Humoresque” seems too summary a description of No 6. But heard in the retrospective context of the true Seventh, D.729 (a Janus-faced compilation of the early and the late, but opening out excitedly into the world of the two unequivocally late and great symphonies), it makes perfect sense to find Schubert broadening his palette of colours, moods and melodies. Gaigg is more musician than comedian here, perhaps a little too driven, but with such power, punch and poise you're won over and hit the encore button. Then, she plays the D729 Fragment with such conviction one longs for the complete sketch in Weingartner’s excellent if rather Brahmsian orchestration. Similarly with the other (often very brief) fragments: over in a flash of inspirational playing, these tend to feel like a good argument for completions or elaborations howsoever speculative.

So to Nos 8 and 9…. how does one sum up performances like this, of such stark, dramatic physical and emotional impact, that is inherent in the very sound itself, as to make this a unique cycle. One where intensity is bought at a cost of risks that don’t always avoid a scrape or two - no prangs but certainly a few tyres against the wall.

I prefer to hear the Eighth as a four-movement symphony, either with Venzago or Gottfried; Venzago’s speculative insertions in the finale are a touch Quixotic of course; but if Venzago isn’t sometimes Quixotic, there is something fundamentally wrong with the classical universe. Gaigg’s account is simply the most starkly textured, tragically-sounded, confrontational recording of the two-movement version I’ve heard: a thing of terror and beauty, clashing lines and colours and shattering dynamic contrasts, even going beyond the darkly intense Gottfried four-movement version. With more than a touch of Bruckner in its remorseless unfolding, it sounds stunningly modern; “contemporary forever”, as Stravinsky said of Beethoven’s Great Fugue. Once again, I can only emphasise how intrinsic the orchestral sound itself is to the impact of these remarkable performances.

Good-better-best can be great fun, a good game, a buzz; but sometimes a recording comes along which is so distinctive and different as to be all but impossible to “rank”.

Maestra Gaigg takes great risks with ensemble and precision to achieve excitement and drama of a new sonorous intensity, which does go over the edge occasionally: in the first movement of the Ninth, as the levels rise into the allegro, the contrapuntal lines, again, clash in stark, almost shocking textural contrast. Far, far from any modern-orchestral, plushly gratifying Berliner-Wiener-and-the-rest tapings post WW2. But, with little relaxation for the second subject, what an earthy energy this creates, with a thrilling momentum through to the coda, at quite a lick too.
You may need, as I did several times, to hit “pause” before continuing.

However, once you’ve been devastated by the climax of the andante you may forgive this conductor anything - as devastatingly dynamic as I’ve ever heard, overwhelmed by rasping brass and percussive strings! A period-instrument sound as different as this, all edges, contrasts and no blend, in a work as familiar as this….. well, you might see visions, you may learn on a steep curve…., or you may simply be repelled. The finale’s coda? Unlike, say, Harnoncourt, Gaigg does not observe the last-chord decrescendo; I guess this is now seen as “optional”. She plays it unfaded, with a devastating brevity.

So, as with the cycle generally, the whole reading is not one to come to if you always demand polish, precision, a certain richness of sound; this isn't (even) Harnoncourt with the COE. Of all the period-instrument recordings I’ve heard, this seems to have that sense of new music newly created, being discovered by its performers, close to the limit of what they can do. Occasionally on the ragged edge. Unlike any other I've heard.

The sound is a constant thrill: such spaciousness, resolution and dynamic impact, especially in the bass registers which are both full and deep, sounding out the acoustic character. The contrast between the thinner orchestral textures, the sheer rhythmic energy and the climactic, starkly unflinching dynamic power……quite exceptional even to this hardened audiophile.

To sum up: Number 1 is a slight disappointment; good moments, but sounds like an (under-rehearsed due to time?) orchestra adapting to the live event, not quite ready for the challenges. No 2 takes a while to settle, but is sublime in the andante (reminding me of why I love this music so much), thrillingly radical and dramatic after that; Nos. 3 - 8 are among the best and most original, renewing readings on record (I go back all the way to Abbado and Bohm); No. 9 takes great risks, but triumphs because, not in spite of them.

Jayne Lee Wilson

CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in D major D 82 [28.10]
Overture in D major D 2A* [3.24]
Symphony in D major D 2B* [1.34]
Overture in D major D 2G* [2.50]
Fragments of two Orchestral pieces D 74A* [0.26] & 71C* [2.41]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major D 125 [28.22]
Fragment of an Orchestral piece D 94A* [0.58]
CD 2
Symphony No. 3 in D major D 200 [24.14]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major D 485 [27.08]
Symphony No. 7 in B minor D 759 ‘Unfinished’ [25.49]
Scherzo from: Symphony No. 7 in B minor D 759 ‘Unfinished’ (Fragment) [0.36]
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in C minor D 417 ‘Tragic’ [32.06]
Symphony No. 6 in C major D 589 ‘Little C major’ [32.35]
Symphony in E major D 729 (Fragment) [5.46]
CD 4
Symphony No. 8 in C major D 944 ‘Great’ [61.02]
* first recordings

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