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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 6 in C, D. 589 The Little [32:27]
Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D. 759 Die Unvollendete (Unfinished) [23:35]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, October 2011
PENTATONE SA-CD 5186-446 [56:27]


  Selected Comparisons Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7
  • The Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado (DG, 1988)
  • Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen (Philips, 1993)
  Symphony No. 7
  • Kammerakademie Potsdam/Antonello Manacorda (Sony Classical, 2012)
  • Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman (RCA Red Seal, 2011)


 
I am great admirer of Philippe Herreweghe, most especially his many recordings of Bach’s choral music. My reaction to his recordings of Classical and Romantic repertoire, however, has been mixed. While his recordings of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem are technically and musically impressive, his lightweight approach to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and F-minor Mass left me indifferent. His Beethoven symphony cycle for Pentatone received mixed critical response, yet his recording of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 - featuring the same orchestra as the present recording under review - has garnered mostly positive critical acclaim, so I was keen to hear this new disc.
 
For the most part, these performances are impressive, cogent readings in stunning sound. They are scrupulously prepared: the playing of every section is disciplined and well balanced. Not a note is out of place, every rhythm is played with precision, and there is a notable unanimity of sectional playing that would be the envy of many better known orchestras. From their timbre I suspect that natural trumpets are used - a practice the orchestra adopted for its Beethoven cycle - though their sound never overpowers the other winds, nor does it ever become overly bright or harsh. The strings play with a lightness and buoyancy that belies their adoption of period performance ideals, including a minimal use of vibrato. Nevertheless, their sound is full bodied, especially in comparison to Brüggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century, and richly colored. The woodwinds offer notable ensemble playing, though I sometimes found the solo playing rather faceless and lacking individuality.
 
The initial hammer-blow chord with which Symphony No. 6 begins immediately raised concerns. It is certainly played together and well balanced between sections, but the initial attack was too rounded, muting the expectant mood which the chord is surely meant to evoke. In Abbado’s performance, the sharper attack on the opening chord is more imposing and immediately engages the listener. The best comparison I can make is when someone reads a story to a child: one person says “Once upon a time” in such a way that the child immediately stops everything it is doing and gives its full attention to the reader, while another person can read the line in way that only partially engages the child’s attention. The remainder of the opening Adagio and the main Allegro are beautifully played. However, much of the first movement features the melody being passed between the various sections of the orchestra, like a conversation that becomes increasingly excitable, an effect only fitfully realized by the Flemish players. Moreover, the sudden acceleration in tempo with which the Coda begins is abrupt and unconvincing, managed far more effortlessly in Abbado’s performance.
 
With the Adagio there is a greater sense of concentration from the orchestra and the playing of the horns is nothing short of ravishing. Likewise the Scherzo is light on its feet and engagingly playful, though the Trio suddenly begins to lose its buoyancy, perhaps because Herreweghe’s phrasing seems so four-square. Brüggen, with greater dynamic contrasts and abundantly characterful woodwinds, plays this movement like no other.
 
The final Allegro moderato features similar strengths and weaknesses: the playing is consistently beautiful, with greater commitment than what is heard in the first movement. Yet both Abbado and Brüggen find more fire and dynamic power in their renditions. My sense is that Herreweghe is holding the orchestral reins too tightly; wary of playing this with the same kind of energy and style that is the accepted norm in Beethoven Symphonies. Perhaps the fear is that to adopt a similar performance attitude would somehow make Schubert’s writing sound like Beethoven pastiche. Whatever the reason, the orchestra playing never fully takes flight, robbing the music of its full joyfulness, a characteristic abundantly realized in the Abbado and Brüggen performances.
 
The Unfinished Symphony - here listed as Symphony No. 7, whereas the Brüggen and Abbado sets list it as Symphony No. 8 - faces far more competition. In my listening I limited myself to the four recordings listed above, including Zinman’s Tonhalle version, which also features a modern orchestra adopting a period approach to the symphony. Surprisingly, of the five performances to which I listened, Brüggen is the most overtly romantic, with greater use of rubato and powerful dynamic contrasts that has a vivid theatricality that is a match for the most Romantic conceptions of this work. The forlorn, mysterious quality his low strings achieve in the opening bars is exquisite; this passage is also impressively atmospheric in the newest recording by the Kammerakademie Potsdam under Antonello Manacorda. In comparison, Herreweghe and his Flemish players are clean, precise and pretty, with very little of any dark emotion. It sounds much more like a piece from the Classical period, and arguably, that is what Herreweghe intends. Of the five performances, Herreweghe’s performance is the second fastest of the five: 

Symphony No. 7/8 Timings
Movement 1
Movement 2
Manacorda
14:41
9:54
Herreweghe
14:02
9:33
Zinman
11:42
9:23
Abbado
14:58
11:30
Brüggen
15:27
10:41


 
While I am wary of suggesting that timing is everything, in the case of the Zinman performance it is everything! The tempo is simply too fast for any emotion to register – Zinman and his players seem completely disengaged from the mood and spirit of the work. While Herreweghe’s interpretation is not nearly as severe and cold as Zinman’s, the emotional atmosphere is only fitfully realized because Herreweghe keeps those dark emotions in check, minimizing the music’s darker intensity.
 
The issue is really whether one believes this symphony belongs to the Romantic or Classical periods of symphonic composition. I see it as an archetypal Romantic symphony, and therefore prefer the performance that stress or heighten the darker elements of the score (Abbado, Brüggen and Manacorda). Herreweghe’s interpretation indicates he believes it belongs closer to the Classical period – while his performance is beautifully played and coherently realized, in the end of feel an important part of the music is missing, or at least under-realized.
 
I have nothing but praise for the recording itself. The orchestral detail is well caught in an acoustic that adds warmth and depth to the orchestral sound. Front to back perspective is absolutely natural, and none of the solos sound artificially balanced by an engineer. The Super-Audio layer of the CD only enhances these qualities, making the sound thrillingly immediate; if I closed my eyes I could easily believe I was in the hall with the orchestra.
 
While this would not be my prime recommendation for either symphony, there is much to admire in both orchestral execution and Herreweghe’s thoughtful interpretations. Abbado’s infectious energy, sense of discovery, and vocally phrased readings are consistently rewarding, but there is so much in this music to discover and understand, I would never want to limit myself to the vision and understanding on one conductor. I will continue to follow Herreweghe’s cycle with interest, and am more curious than ever to hear his thoughts on the ninth symphony.
 

David A. McConnell
 


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