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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Eight Symphonies

Symphony No 1 in D major, D 82
Symphony No 2 in B flat major, D 125
Symphony No 3 in D major, D 200
Symphony No 4 in C minor, D 417 "Tragic"
Symphony No 5 in B flat major, D 485;
Symphony No 6 in C major, D 589 "Little C Major Symphony"
Symphony No 8 in B minor, D 759 "Unfinished";
Symphony No 9 in C major D 944 "Great".

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm
Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin.
Recording dates: June, 1963 (no 9); February & March, 1966 (Nos. 5 & 8);
May, 1971 (Nos. 1 & 2); November, 1971 (nos. 3, 4 & 6)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 307-2 (4 CDs) [249.30]

This bargain box gathers together the complete cycle of Schubert symphonies which Böhm and the BPO recorded between 1963 and 1971.

Before discussing the recordings themselves, a word of congratulation to DG on the presentation of this set. Nowadays reissues at mid- or bargain price, especially by the big companies, are accompanied by unacceptably skimpy documentation. However, this release has an informative essay (in three languages) with well chosen illustrations, all of which would be perfectly acceptable with a full price issue. The discs themselves are in cardboard sleeves contained in a robust slimline box. Full marks for presentation; other companies, please note.

Karl Böhm was, of course, steeped in the Austro-German symphonic tradition and the depth of his experience and understanding shows through clearly in these recordings. They are "traditional", big band performances. However, just because we have become accustomed to hearing the works of this period played by chamber orchestras, whether on modern or period instruments, does not mean that Böhmís way with Schubert should now be ignored or despised: far from it.

Let me say straight away that anyone buying this set is unlikely to be disappointed. For the most part the performances are very satisfying, the sound quality is pretty consistent (despite the fact that the recordings were spread over eight years) and good. In addition, the orchestral sound is well balanced Ė by the conductor as well as by the engineers Ė and this allows us to enjoy the contribution of the BPO to the full.

Throughout the cycle the orchestra plays sensitively and with finesse. In particular, the work of the woodwind principals is a consistent source of delight. The players were probably as familiar with the music as was Böhm and it shows.

What of the performances themselves? Well, Böhm has an homogeneous view of the cycle which, indeed, is mirrored in the booklet essay, where the author presents the first six symphonies as a preparation for the "Great" C Major. Comparisons with other recordings generally showed the Böhm cycle in a good light.

In the earlier symphonies I felt occasionally that Böhm was a touch po-faced. When I compared his versions of the Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies with those which Beecham recorded with the RPO in the 1950s I expected to find that Böhmís accounts were less charming, less smiling. However, honours were just about even and, indeed, in one or two places, such as the Menuetto of the Third I preferred Böhm.

Comparison with Nicolaus Harnoncourtís 1992 Concertgebouw cycle was an interesting experience. In general, I found Böhmís approach to be heavier in the middle movements of the earlier symphonies and I preferred Harnoncourtís more flowing tempi in the Andantes and Minuets (though not in the Menuetto of Number 1 where he is surely too fast). However, it should be stressed that if Böhmís performances are heard in isolation they are, for the most part, enjoyable and satisfying and, after all, there is usually more than one way to play a symphony.

The one disappointment in the cycle is the so-called "Tragic". Here I found Böhm to be just plain dull; In particular, his speed for the minuet is ponderous while the tempo for the finale is flaccid. Harnoncourt is much better here. However, both performances are put in the shade, I think, by Igor Markevitchís trenchant and lively 1955 account, also with the BPO for DG. If collectors can find a copy (coupled with fine accounts of Berwaldís Third and Fourth Symphonies) they would be well advised to snap it up.

Understandably, for many collectors the acid test of a Schubert cycle will be the last two of the canon. They can be assured that Böhmís recordings are among the best available. In the ĎUnfinishedí the first movement unfolds naturally and with appropriate gravitas. Detail is observed, but never in an obtrusive way. The second movement is serene and dignified. Throughout, Schubertís Elysian music is presented with complete understanding. Perhaps, by comparison with Gunther Wandís compelling Ďliveí account from 1995, also with the BPO (on RCA), Böhm does not probe quite so deeply. However, many will prefer his objective approach and he gives a performance which is deeply satisfying.

He is similarly authoritative in Number 9. There is one quirk in that the opening horn call is played with each note detached. I canít recall ever hearing another performance in which this melody is not played legato and I must say, having listened to it a few times, I donít care for Böhmís way with this passage. Thereafter, however, all is well and Böhm is a wholly convincing guide to the symphony.

In summary, then, with the exception of Number 4, this is a fine and consistent cycle. There are other recordings of individual symphonies which, depending on oneís mood at the time, might be thought preferable. However Böhmís performances are completely free from any eccentricities and are cultivated, sensible and thoroughly musical. A most attractive bargain.

John Quinn


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