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CD Review

Franz Schubert

  • Symphony #1 in D Major, D 82
  • Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, D 125
  • Symphony #3 in D Major, D 200
  • Symphony #4 in C minor "Tragic", D 417
  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, D 485
  • Symphony #6 in C Major, D 589
  • Symphony #7 in B minor "Unfinished", D 759
  • Symphony #8 in C Major "Great", D 944
  • Mass #5 in A Flat Major, D 678 *
  • Luba Orgonášová, soprano
  • Birgit Remmert, contralto
  • Kurt Streit, tenor
  • Christian Gerhaher, bass
  • Mass #6 in E Flat Major, D 950 *
  • Dorothea Röschmann, soprano
  • Bernarda Fink, contralto
  • Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
  • Christian Elsner, tenor
  • Christian Gerhaher, bass
  • Alfonso und Estrella, D 732 (Opera in 3 Acts) *
  • Dorothea Röschmann (Estrella)
  • Kurt Streit (Alfonso)
  • Christian Gerhaher (Froila)
  • Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Mauregato)
  • Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Adolfo)
* Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Bonus video - Nikolaus Harnoncourt in conversation
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR150061 8CD+Blu-ray [Full HD 16:9, Region Code: ABC (worldwide)]
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To mark Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 85th birthday, as much as the successful cooperation between the Austrian conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic during some 25 years, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings (BPHR), the orchestra's own label, releases a monumental Schubert box-set, including all the symphonies, two late Masses and the virtually unknown opera Alfonso und Estrella. Recorded in concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie between 2003 and 2006 and spread over eight CDs and one Blu-ray disc, this deluxe edition arrives in a lavish box, designed like last year's Schumann/Rattle cycle from BPHR as a beautiful but hard-to-store landscape-sized book. (The discs are available separately as well for download on Qobuz in Studio Master quality and on iTunes and Amazon in low-res AAC and MP3.)

The Blu-ray disc contains all the music in PCM 2.0 Stereo 24-bit/48kHz as well as in 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit/48kHz), plus a 38-minute interview with the conductor (from 2014) about his passion for Schubert and his work with the Berliner. The box also offers a code for free download of the high resolution audio files of the whole edition and a seven-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner's video streaming venue. A 104-page book (in German and English) guides the listener through the music with articles, commentary from Harnoncourt, and the libretto of the opera and the masses texts.

The trouble, so to speak, for this new Schubert edition is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt already left us an outstanding, hard-to-beat Schubert Symphonies cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam back in 1992 (on Warner/Teldec, now available as a bargain box-set of four CDs). Needless to say, Harnoncourt's insightful style, the incisive combination of timbres and vibrant textural analysis of the music, and above all his understanding of Schubert's particular Viennese lyricism, remain in a class of their own. Harnoncourt sees the confrontation of the dancelike vitality with the sense of grief and ever-present nearness of death, a reflection of the so-called Viennese 'joie de vivre' at the edge of the grave, as the principal expressive level in Schubert's music. The extraordinary array of dynamic inflections, harmonic shifts and energized rhythms he reveals prove hugely original and place even the earliest symphonies, often disparaged when seen from the perspective of the famous two last ones, on a higher level. Moreover, the Berliners have throughout the years just as successfully as their colleagues from the Concertgebouw adapted to Harnoncourt's approach, especially in a time when historical performance practice was anything but taken for granted by a conventional formation.

Still, there is no denying that Harnoncourt is overall less consistent and persuasive in the new Berlin set. The message of sadness is hammered home a bit too emphatically. Take the lovely Andante of the First Symphony which in Amsterdam delicately changed its prevalent poetic mood by alternating major and minor tonalities, becomes in Berlin a pretty anguished piece from start to finish. The sound has somewhat thickened too (although the recording and venue might be partly to blame) and above all the natural flow which was quite miraculously handled in the older recordings is now more often sacrificed to mannered phrasing and tempo shifts (the Scherzo of the "Great" C Major is a prime example). In some cases the balances between movements as well as inside the movements themselves were better judged in the Amsterdam traversal. There are first-rate renditions of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, but Harnoncourt's tempi frequently slowed down – as for example in the Menuetti of the Second and Fifth symphonies, sounding weightier in their Allegro sections and blurring the contrast with the respective Trios. More worrying is however the ultra-slow "Unfinished" (the Allegro moderato runs 2:20 min longer than in Amsterdam) and while Harnoncourt knows better than anybody how to defend his approach, the ponderous and massive pre-Brucknerian quality he suggests here won't be to everybody's taste. The two first movements of the C Major (called here the Eighth as Harnoncourt uses the New Schubert Edition) no longer flow as easily either with over-emphasized accents and moments of indulgence – and truth be told the Berlin woodwinds and brass are simply outgunned here by their Dutch colleagues in sheer character. Climaxes are more theatrical but less subtle (as in the Allegro ma non troppo of the opening movement). The Finale is excitingly driven, but all in all the older Concertgebouw "Great" C Major remains preferable.

The two last Masses are definitely worth having and performed here with tremendous dramatic fervor and a genuine sense of awe. These are extraordinary works, most likely composed out of impulse, according to the conductor even as efforts to come to terms with death – once you heard the dark-colored sonorities of the Kyrie of the E Flat Major, you'll understand what he means. Harnoncourt's transposition of period manners into a traditional environment worked tremendously well here and succeeds in bringing out the originality of much of the writing, combining incisive choral singing, superb orchestral parts – and some remarkable solo singing from Dorothea Röschmann, Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Elsner in the et incarnatus est and the Benedictus of the 6th Mass.

Equally rewarding is Schubert's 1822 opera Alfonso und Estrella, which never found a place in the repertory (and was actually premiered by Franz Liszt in 1854 as an "act of reverence"). Unconventionally written, a reaction against the standard Italian opera pattern which ruled Vienna at the time, Alfonso und Estrella may be hard to stage in the theatre but on disc it's foremost a small treasure trove of melodic invention, while Harnoncourt makes the utmost of the orchestration. It's well sung, too, although Jonas Kaufmann would have been preferable to Kurt Streit in the role of Alfonso.

The Berlin Philharmonic offers playing of warmth and virtuosity yet is not particularly well served by the recording, which lack presence, bite and naturalness of timbre. In this respect, too, the older Teldec box remains unsurpassed.

Bottom line is that no real Schubert enthusiast will probably want to be without this box, even if it is something of a mixed blessing when it comes to the Symphonies. Those in possession of the older Concertgebouw set needn't put that one too far away. Remakes of complete symphonies cycles are apparently much like movie remakes; they are only very rarely better than the original attempt.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman