Classical CD Reviews

SCHUBERT: Symphonies 1 – 8 – Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./ Lorin Maazel – BR-KLASSIK (3 discs)

Excellent live performances from Bavaria; Maazel and his band are reliable guides to the canonic Schubert Eight.

Published on July 27, 2013

SCHUBERT: Symphonies 1 – 8 – Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./ Lorin Maazel – BR-Klassik  900712 (3 discs), 78:33, 75:44, 78:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Schubert’s first six symphonies, written between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, are certainly precocious works and have enough felicities to keep them in the repertory after the works of many more seasoned symphonists have fallen by the wayside. Then again, even though they represent many of the hallmarks by which we know Schubert’s style, none of them is a work hinting at future greatness, as Mozart’s Symphonies 25 and 29 (written when the composer was seventeen and eighteen respectively) do. For that, you have to turn to the genre that Schubert dominated as a composer: the Lied.

For one thing, the early symphonies of Schubert are about fifteen years behind the times. For models, Schubert understandably turned to the Viennese masters of the symphony, including Beethoven, but none of them even hint that Beethoven had written a symphony beyond the Second. (In fact, Beethoven had completed his Eighth Symphony a year before Schubert wrote his First in 1813.) As “modern” as Schubert was to get in these first six symphonies was to jettison his usual Haydnesque slow introduction (in the Fifth Symphony) and incorporate a scherzo in place of the usual minuet (in the Sixth Symphony). Also in the Sixth Symphony, Schubert succumbed to the Rossini bug that gripped Vienna in the eighteen-teens. The prominent role given to the winds and the question-and-answer interplay between winds and strings represent Schubert’s evocation of Rossini’s style. But in terms of aesthetics, the Sixth Symphony was a step backwards after the Fifth of 1816, about which one commentator I’ve read has asked if there’s a more perfect symphony in the repertoire. (Be it noted that “perfect” isn’t at all the same as “great”; a number of Mozart’s symphonies approach perfection, but only a handful are truly great.)

Given the nature of Schubert’s symphonic production up to the year of the Sixth, his twenty-first year, the composer must have thought he’d hit a brick wall. Over the next few years he managed to create mere symphonic fragments, all strangely enough in the key of D. (Incidentally, this fact led to the delayed discovery of Schubert’s last symphony, D. 936A, also in D major, but that’s a story for another day.) At this point in his career Schubert was in symphonic crisis mode, searching for a breakthrough, which came definitely with the Symphony No. 8 of 1822. However, the year before this, Schubert created another unfinished symphony, the Seventh, D. 729. Unlike the Eighth, though, which is a musical head and torso in just two movements, the Seventh is a symphonic umbilical cord, written throughout its four-movement length as a single melodic line with indications here and there of instrumentation and harmony. But then Schubert had fully scored a few sections of the work, so we know that it would have been his most ambitious ever in terms of orchestration; the composer audaciously added two more horns to the traditional two of the Classical-era symphony, creating a proto-Brucknerian sound in spots. At least in its completion by musicologist Brian Newbould, the Seventh is certainly worth hearing, and there are recordings that will give you a chance to do so, if you can track them down. But Schubert obviously thought of the Seventh as a wrong path and so abandoned it before completion. As to the Eighth, critics suppose that Schubert simply couldn’t come up with material that sustained the inspired quality of the first two movements and so went on to other projects. A fragment of a scherzo survives; its pesante galumphing hardly seems an appropriate follow-up to Schubert’s serene and stately Andante con moto. So maybe the critics are right.

At any rate, most conductors content themselves with Schubert’s canonical eight, leaving aside the D. 729 sketch. Thus lately, what used to be called the Eighth (The Unfinished) is renumbered the Seventh, while the Great C Major is designated No. 8. Hope you’re not too confused at this point.

BR Klassic gives us these eight symphonies in live performances by Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. The recordings go way back to 2001, and I’m not sure why they’ve been kept in the can so long: for the most part, these are fine competitive readings in very good sound. I won’t go into great detail about the individual performances but will say the first three symphonies are treated to exuberant readings, with lots of Haydnesque brio, except in the slow movements, where Schubert’s lyricism comes to the fore. Maazel and company change gears very comfortably, shifting in the Second Symphony from the boisterous ebullience of the first movement to the tender naïveté of the following Andante. And back again, in the propulsive Menuetto and Presto vivace finale. I’m happy that my favorite among the first six, No. 3, receives a model performance, from the hushed, feathery violin figures in the Adagio maestoso introduction to the breakneck Presto vivace finale. Maazel makes all the right moves as far as I’m concerned, and I’m as happy with this performance as with any on disc.

Speaking of breakneck speeds, Maazel proceeds at a slightly slower pace in the finales of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but some listeners might still consider his tempi a bit too “up” in this music. The finale of the Fourth is marked Allegro, and a genuine allegro would, for example, allow those surprising little flutter-tongue passages in the flutes to sound more fully; in Maazel’s fast reading, they get lost somewhat in the shuffle. Other than that, however, Maazel’s Fourth is a fine, thoughtful interpretation. I’ve rarely heard the slow introduction—clearly based on the representation of Chaos from Haydn’s The Creation—played with more compelling gravitas. My biggest complaint lies with the slow movement of the Fifth. A wistful Andante, Maazel turns it into a schlepping Adagio, stretching it a full minute beyond what’s pretty much an average timing (around ten minutes)—a minute and a half longer than Abbado in his well-regarded version on DGG. This is the biggest wet blanket in the whole series, but luckily, that’s the only thing I can really grouse about.

Schubert’s last two symphonies, with their grander gestures and grander orchestral palette, actually sound just a bit small-scale in these performances, and I think that reflects an interpretive trend rather than any outright lack on the part of conductor or orchestra. Basically, these are excellent readings, fully idiomatic, without an ounce of extraneous rubato or other grandstanding gestures that conductors often impose on this music, especially the Great C Major. The comparative lightness of texture in Maazel’s interpretation recalls recent performances I’ve heard by the likes of the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair (Avie) and the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer (Channel Classics). A far cry from one of my favorites of another era, Georg Solti leading a hefty Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). Both approaches seem valid to me. Certainly, Maazel brings great nobility to this score; the sense of momentum with which he invests the last movement makes this the worthy high point of the set.

The Bavarian orchestra plays with expected fervor but with great discipline as well; in fact, you could be forgiven if in a blind test you thought these performances were set down in a studio—at least before you heard the applause at the end of each symphony. And except for the usual balance problem here and there, the recordings are quite good. There are a number of fine recordings of the eight Schubert symphonies available; I now count Maazel’s among them.

—Lee Passarella




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