Marc Minkowski founded Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble 30 years ago. Under his direction the orchestra developed into one of the foremost period instrument formations of the day, focusing on Baroque, Classical and Romantic vocal and orchestral repertoire. Coinciding with their 30th anniversary they released the complete Franz Schubert Symphonies cycle on the French Naïve label. The project was filmed and recorded live at the Vienna Konzerthaus by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) in March of this year.
Minkowski naturally only retains eight symphonies (Schubert embarked on at least seven more), namely the seven completed ones and the famous "Unfinished" in B minor, spread here over four CDs. This whole corpus was composed between 1813 and 1826, and thus completed before Schubert even reached the age of 30. (By comparison Beethoven was already 29 when he completed his first symphony.) The liner notes remind us of the confusion about the numbering and chronology of the symphonies. Especially once the 7th in the row of completed symphonies (the "Great" in C Major) was assigned the number 9, which it still is in the collective memory of music lovers worldwide, just as the "Unfinished" is the 8th. It was long thought that Schubert composed another symphony between the "Unfinished" B minor and the "Great" C Major, and once found that opus would become the number 8. But that never happened, while recent research concluded that the C Major and its ghost predecessor are one and the same work. As others like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and David Zinman before him, Minkowski follows the New Schubert Edition which confines itself to a strict chronology and assigns number 7 to the "Unfinished" and 8 to the C Major. To help the possibly still bewildered music lover the old numbering is added between brackets. But why the producers at Naïve presented the symphonies in total disorder on the CDs in this box - CD 1: #3, 1 and 2; CD 2: #5 and 4; CD 3: #7(8) and 6; CD 4: #8(9) - remains a mystery.
As for the performances, Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre offer a fine traversal that undoubtedly places itself with ease at the top of the Schubert Symphonies cycles on period instruments, but falls somewhat short when confronted with the best renditions on modern instruments, like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Claudio Abbado and Karl Böhm, among others.
As had also been noted after the live performance of the 1st and 9th Symphonies I recently attended, Minkowski's approach is pragmatic and flexible. In his book historical accuracy is never to be confused with a dry, rigid demonstration of scholarly findings. His Schubert is alive. Yet this is also something of a double-edged sword. The performances in this set of the 1st and 9th sound markedly different from the ones I heard at the concert a few months later, when it comes to tempi, phrasing and even overall structure. Repeats seem to be observed or dropped at will. This sort of spontaneity may sound refreshing, but it also leaves me wondering what Minkowski is actually trying to tell us. Bottom line is that his Schubert still sounds very much like a work in progress and precisely that prevents it from attaining the same level of finesse and authority of the above mentioned sets.
On the plus side is the orchestra. Les Musiciens du Louvre are a very attractive ensemble and I am delighted to hear how close the balance in these recordings matches the actual concert-hall experience. Except for a few instances when Minkowski pushes his forces too hard for comfort (as in the last movement of the 3rd and 4th Symphonies) the transparency and color of the orchestra are faithfully captured, with especially warm and flexible divided violins and a ravishing authentic Viennese oboe. The rest of the woodwinds may be less commendable, but the brass and the timpani are well placed in the overall picture, present but not overpoweringly so, unless when required. With the applause edited and no audience noises, it is virtually impossible to tell these are live recordings, which adds to the listening pleasure.
If anything, Minkowski's early Schubert vibrates with an infectious joie de vivre and this approach works best of all in the outer movements of the first symphonies, looking back towards Haydn and Mozart, yet brimming with youthful optimism and confidence. Sometimes too much for its own good. The Allegro vivace of the opening movement of the 4th ("Tragic") becomes too relentless and uniform in its Stürm und Drang drive and what may work in a concert-hall doesn't necessarily stand repeated listening on disc. Minkowski also sounds less convincing in some of the slow movements, where his at times listless tempi posture for lyricism and melancholy, while the lack of fantasy of his phrasing cannot always be blamed on the inexperience of the young composer. This is already worrying in the Andante of the 1st Symphony, but turns into a more serious issue in the context of the 4th, which eventually only manages to sound long-winded. The charming, lighter scored 5th, which is otherwise one of the better achievements in this set, also somewhat lets down in the Adagio con moto movement, where Minkowski's phrasing sounds merely trivial compared to the state of grace that a Thomas Beecham, a Wolfgang Sawallisch or a Nikolaus Harnoncourt obtain.
The "Unfinished" Symphony is undoubtedly the highlight of this cycle. The raw, dark colors of Les Musiciens du Louvre immediately create a gripping, intense mood (especially the low strings, the oboe and the trombones sound tremendous here) that pervades the whole work. Minkowski alternates with a convincing, taut pace and a good deal of theatrical flair (reminding us he is also an experienced opera conductor) the conflicting emotional climates in the two movements to magnificent effect.
All the more a shame then he doesn't quite attain the same heights with the 8th (9th). As he explains in the booklet, Minkowski added a third musician to each of the woodwinds sections as well as two more horns, hoping to obtain "that organ sonority that was later to define the Bruckner orchestra". Although generally more controlled than in the concert I attended, Minkowski's "Great" still misses the required breath and grandeur he clearly aims for, and probably this is not the right orchestra for it either. When considering the Bruckner link, maestros like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Günter Wand come to mind. They both left immense, forward-looking versions of Schubert's 8th (9th), but then they were standing in front of a different orchestra (the Berlin Philharmonic) - not to mention their respective genius as conductors. Of course, there are superb moments in Minkowski's reading, details in the orchestration that are superbly brought out (like a finely-dosed blend of the woodwinds and brass in the Andante con moto), but while his tempi remain rather moderate, he doesn't quite achieve this impression of sweeping force that characterizes the greatest versions.
All in all, a well-recorded set that deserves to be explored, even though it doesn't displace the old frontrunners.
Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman