This complete cycle on SACD is available on four separate discs, not in a boxed set – as yet. Before turning to the performances themselves, let me deal with an unavoidable issue surrounding this series on Tudor. The final Schubert Symphony here is billed as the Symphony #8, though it is really the Ninth, as we have known it in the past. Since the Schubert symphonic canon has been renumbered, with the, more or less, non-existent Seventh discounted, the unfinished Eighth has been reassigned as the Seventh, and the Ninth as the Eighth. Got that? Well, that renumbering hasn't really caught on with everybody, and you're still likely to see the Great C Major Symphony referred to as the Ninth, and the "Unfinished" as the Eighth on most concert programs and recordings.
In any event, this new cycle on Tudor is quite a worthwhile acquisition for those interested in Schubert's symphonies. Let's start at the end with the greatest of the symphonies, the Eighth. (I'll use the new numbering employed by Tudor here.) This symphony is given a slightly understated, fairly straightforward, but always spirited treatment by Nott and company. The playing is elegant when called for, dramatic at climactic moments, dreamy when Schubert turns ethereal, and very well played throughout. In fact, the Bamberg Symphony plays like a world-class orchestra, with crisp attacks, accurate intonation, all manner of nuance in their dynamics, and both individual and collective virtuosity of a high order. Technically then, this performance can hardly be faulted in any respect. Nott's tempos and phrasing are intelligently wrought, and nothing exhibits the least sense of self indulgence. The finale effervesces here as you've rarely heard it before. But then the whole work brims with spirit and commitment. You almost get the feeling the Bamberg Symphony could play this technically quite challenging work in their sleep.
This recording of the Eighth could rival or surpass almost any previous effort. I've always favored a rather scrappy recording on DG by Böhm and the Dresden State Orchestra. Despite some flaws, that reading had character – especially in the second movement – though I doubt it would make the list of many others. But Böhm's Berlin Philharmonic effort on DG would. Giulini and the Chicago Symphony on DG, Wand and the Cologne Radio Symphony on EMI and several others are also worth mentioning. If I were to nitpick to find a criticism of this Nott reading, it would be that a certain spontaneity may be slightly lacking. I almost feel guilty for mentioning that, since it is so splendid in virtually every way, including the excellent sonics.
The Unfinished Seventh, the most popular Schubert symphony, gets similar treatment from Nott and his players, though here things are slightly more understated. When the popular alternate theme of the opening movement is first presented, it is played in an almost reticent fashion, invested with utter delicacy, as if it is so fragile as to be teetering on the brink of collapse. It gains spirit and muscle later on and in the end the approach works. Both movements are played with a deft sense for drama, with the orchestra displaying masterly control over their wide range of dynamics: sound can swell from piano to forte smoothly and swiftly and retreat just as subtly. The clarinetist and oboist, in their individual solos, render the second movement alternate theme with a great sense of delicacy and finesse, nicely laying the groundwork for the dramatic orchestral explosions that follow.
This performance of the Seventh features a half-minute fragment from a Scherzo that may or may not have been intended to be a part of this symphony by Schubert. The movement ends abruptly, giving just a taste of perky music that appears to be out of place here. How, you ask, does this Unfinished fare against the competition? Well, there have been so many fine versions of this symphony, including by Karajan, Böhm, Wand and Mackerras. But this one by Nott is certainly worthy to stand alongside these and the other finer versions of this warhorse.
The early Schubert symphonies are all given excellent performances. The spirited Fifth was once my favorite among this group (I'll take the Fourth now), and here Nott deftly captures its youthful and playful qualities, though at times you sense the playing is a bit regimented and the mood a tad well-behaved. That said, the performance is wonderful: balances are seemingly perfect, attacks are potent and crisp, and solos are executed with subtlety and technical precision.
The Sixth starts off seriously and the listener unfamiliar with it might think it will augur the deeper expressive language of the succeeding symphonies. But following the introduction the work turns lighter, adopting much the same playful, energetic spirit of most of the early symphonies. Yet, there is something Brahmsian about the finale, perhaps this work's finest movement. Again, Nott and company turn in a fine performance.
The first four symphonies receive splendid readings as well. The First is given quite a dramatic and effective treatment for its serious opening pages and the rest is rendered in an appropriately lighter spirit. The Second opens in an epic, sunny mood, marked Largo, and when the main Allegro vivace section comes, the music bursts forth with energy and joy. The Third, the shortest of the symphonies in this set, has a long and serious introduction, but again the mood turns lighter. The Fourth, subtitled Tragic, begins in a truly dark manner, as if some funereal subject matter had overcome the 19-year-old composer. When the main Allegro section appears the music maintains an edginess and fateful sense throughout. This is Schubert's deepest early symphony and though it doesn't quite challenge the symphonies of Beethoven, it served to heighten the composer's expressive persona. As already noted, Nott and his Bamberg players capture the heart of these early works and the two later masterpieces with consummate skill. The sound reproduction is excellent throughout this cycle and the notes are highly informative.
I first learned all these symphonies when I was in my mid- to late-twenties, when I picked up a complete set on Vox/Turnabout LPs played by the Philharmonia Hungarica led by the late Peter Maag, recorded in 1969. They were generally good performances, and some are still available. There have been many other noteworthy sets over the years as well, including by Karl Böhm (DG), Roy Goodman (Brilliant Classics), Colin Davis (RCA), Hans Zender (Hänssler Classics) and others. This new one by Nott is consistently well played and incisively interpreted, placing it among the finer sets as well. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings