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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No 8 in B minor “Unfinished”, D759
Symphony No 9 in C major “Great”, D944
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 2021, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 3045 [2 CDs: 88]
Herbert Blomstedt has recorded for several labels in the course of his long career but never before, it seems, for DG. For his debut album on the Yellow Label, he’s chosen to revisit Schubert’s last two symphonies. Between 1982 and 1984, he recorded all eight Schubert symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden; he was their principal conductor at that time. I’ve never heard those performances – which I believe are now available on Brilliant Classics - but I found an enthusiastic review of them by my colleague Dominy Clements. In an interview in the DG booklet Blomstedt comments that for the Dresden recordings “we still used the old complete edition of Schubert’s works – the volumes devoted to the symphonies had been edited by Johannes Brahms”. He goes on to say, though, that the old edition “is flawed in many respects”. For these new recordings he has been able to avail himself of the New Schubert Edition. I noted with interest that the Dresden performance of the C major symphony plays for 53:47 whereas this new version takes 61:40. Dominy made no reference to excessively fleet tempi and I wonder if in the earlier recording Blomstedt observed fewer repeats. (The Dresden performance of the ‘Unfinished’ takes 24:15 compared with 26:04 in Leipzig.) It was the original intention that these symphonies should be recorded live for DG but Covid restrictions at the time put paid to that plan; instead, we hear performances set down under studio conditions.
In the first movement of the ‘Unfinished’ Blomstedt adopts a most pleasing core tempo. The pace is such that he can make the dramatic interjections register with due weight but the principal impression given is one of lyrical flow in the music. I love the rock-solid foundation to the orchestral sound that the double basses and trombones supply. Conductor and orchestra work together to ensure that all the dynamics are precisely weighted; nothing is exaggerated but one is conscious of the importance that dynamic contrasts play in this piece. In the development section there’s just the right degree of strength and weight. The playing of the Gewandhausorchester is simply fabulous; their depth and richness of tone produce a feast for the ears and the combined skills of the players, conductor and recording engineers mean that you hear all the internal detail in a very natural and satisfying way. Now is as good a time as any to say that in both symphonies you will hear orchestral playing of the utmost distinction. One other point to mention is that Blomstedt divides his violins left and right; the benefits of that are readily audible in both symphonies.
The second movement is marked Andante con moto and Blomstedt’s presentation of the music shows how carefully he has thought about the tempo indication. So, we get a speed that accords to a comfortable walking pace and the ‘con moto’ aspect is respected so that the music always moves forward nicely. This pacing is such that Schubert’s melodic lines are allowed just the space that they need; there’s a real singing quality to this performance. That said, when Schubert calls for it, Blomstedt and his players invest the music with just the right degree of strength and determination (as, for example, between 8:03 and 8:40). The last couple of minutes in the movement are characterised by a lovely tranquillity. This is a wonderful account of the ‘Unfinished’ which held my attention from first note to last and which simply sounded ‘right’ in all respects.
The performance of the C major symphony is no less satisfying. The Andante introduction proceeds at a nice walking pace; the music has purpose and a good forward stride. The Allegro ma non troppo has an abundance of energy, with the rhythms crisply articulated. Blomstedt’s approach is very sprightly but not to such a degree that the pace seems to be too hectic. I’ve written the word “bracing” in my notes and I think that sums up this vital performance. Pleasingly, Blomstedt refuses to indulge in any rhetorical slowing in the last couple of pages.
The reading of the Andante con moto is, again, beautifully judged. At the start it’s clear that Blomstedt has taken careful note of the ‘con moto’ injunction, yet at 1:49 there’s a nice and very natural easing of the pace for the arrival of the second thematic idea. This proves to be just the first of a number of subtle tempo modifications throughout the movement. These transitions are all expertly handled so as to be almost imperceptible. As I listened, I was aware – though not in an intrusive sense – of lots of small points of detail. One such is the ideally weighted soft string chords underneath the solo horn in the bars leading up to the return of the of the first theme (at 5:54). It’s only a small point, perhaps, but here a master conductor and a superbly responsive orchestra bring it off perfectly. Details such as this evidence scrupulous preparation but they never sound studied.
The third movement is liberally scattered with repeats and, in lesser hands, can seem repetitious. That’s emphatically not the case here. Blomstedt and his wonderful orchestra observe all the contrasts and little events that Schubert has written into the score and by so doing – without any unwarranted exaggeration - they hold the listener’s attention. Furthermore, the playing is full of energy. The Trio (from 6:53) has a winning ‘swing’ to it.
The finale bursts forth, full of optimism and brio, while the second subject (around 1:50) combines momentum with lyrical ease in ideal balance. Blomstedt takes the big repeat (4:03), so we get the chance to savour everything a second time. The performance of this movement contains a wonderful variety of dynamics and texture; one is never in any danger of boredom. Near the end, another detail caught my ear: the fantastic weight to the succession of big string chords just before the coda (from 15:12) Blomstedt leads an ebullient, joyful reading of the finale; I loved it. Indeed, I loved everything about this performance of the
‘Great’ C major. Never once does Herbert Blomstedt indulge in any unwarranted point-making, yet he manages to make this very familiar repertoire piece sound fresh and exhilarating.
I think it’s worth quoting a comment made by Blomstedt in the booklet a propos the vexed questions of the many repeats in the C major symphony. He points out that the repeats are not marked ad libitum in the autograph score but, rather, they are “an integral part of the structure”. He goes on to say this: “… the great challenge for its interpreters lies in revealing the wealth of this music, and ensuring that, as Schumann called it, the ‘heavenly length’ all fits together to form an organic whole. We don’t want listeners to grow bored and say: ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ No, it must sound like a blessing: ‘Ah, once again!’” I’d say that Blomstedt has succeeded triumphantly in his objective. The performance plays for 61:40; for me, the time seemed to flash by.
Herbert Blomstedt was ninety-four years young at the time of these sessions. His vitality and engagement with the music are things of wonder. Here, he takes two familiar – dare one say, over-familiar – symphonies and gives both of them fresh, wise readings. He’s aided in this endeavour by fantastic playing on the part of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The sheer beauty of sound of the orchestra, both collective and in solo passages, is a pleasure in itself, but in addition they are marvellously responsive to all the nuances of the scores.
The DG recordings are first-rate. The engineers balance the ensemble expertly so that fine clarity of detail is achieved and there’s also an excellent dynamic range. In addition, there’s a lovely bloom on the sound so that the tonal richness of the orchestra is readily apparent.
These are masterly and highly distinguished Schubert performances.