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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
Symphony no. 3 in D major, D200 (1815) [22:38]
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Tragic, D417 (1816) [30:43]
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. Tonhalle Zurich, 13-15 February 2012, DDD
RCA RED SEAL 88691 96379 2 [53:21]

A loud blast calls the listener to attention in Schubert’s Symphony 3. I like the way David Zinman brings a sense of improvisation to the demisemiquaver ascents of the woodwind soloists in the introduction. It gives them personality anticipating that of the merrily cavorting clarinet which ushers in the Allegro main body ofthe opening movement (tr.1). This is the brio of exuberance, not bullishness.The second theme, on oboe (2:44) is still more jocular, the development (5:22) wittily toys with the clarinet’s original dotted rhythm, but the second theme’s return in the recapitulation, now on clarinet, has become more courtly. The coda, however, will have none of this refinement, preferring joyous brass punctuation. This is uncomplicated music and Zinman’s generally robust approach serves it well. The recording I shall use for comparison, that made in 1987 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 4778689) is somewhat more refined in approach but thereby more calculated, less natural, notably in the flow of the introduction and the ‘look at me’ kick to the step of the oboe in the second theme. Abbado’s coda is staunch but also disciplined, lacking Zinman’s festive quality. Paradoxically Zinman also achieves more of a chamber quality in the neat scaling of his larger forces where Abbado places more dramatic emphasis on dynamic contrasts.
To the second movement intermezzo Zinman brings an unassuming simplicity which is very satisfying. This is the artlessness of great artistry aided by gentle dynamic shading and light pointing. A well judged Allegretto ensures cheerfulness. For sheer unalloyed joy the ultra-smooth central clarinet solo would be hard to beat When repeated by flute it’s benignly punctuated by the first violins who then (1:53) have their moment of bright yet soulful reflection on this state of happiness. In this movement Abbado’s lovely pointing is too conscious of its own daintiness. Zinman brings to the Minuet all the exuberance and bounce its frequent sforzandi openings create, but neatly tempered by the following very soft phrases. The Trio, for oboe and bassoon is a carefree folk-like outpouring of melody which is also exquisitely crafted. Abbado’s Trio has a touch more suave style and lilt while his Minuet is weightier but also more stiff. In a finale of scintillatingly cracking pace a lightly articulated opening soon gives way to more vigorous celebration. The two qualities continue to be interchanged, by turns a trim dénouement and a merry send-off. Zinman’s energetic approach is very engaging but in comparison with Abbado here it’s rather effortful. With feathery opening but fiery continuation Abbado’s chamber orchestra comes into its own in its capability of lightness and effortless shimmering.
Symphony 4, the ‘Tragic’, raises the question: how tragic is it? Zinman keeps a fairly open mind: he clarifies the work’s ambivalence. So the first movement introduction (tr. 5) is a carefully placed and considered articulation of disquiet. At the same time it is an orderly progression, a phase which might resolve, just as the first notable break at 0:39 has progressed from the opening C minor to G flat major. Zinman’s objective approach makes you wonder whether the main body will be in a major or a minor key. It is in C minor but the restless Allegro extends the earlier chameleon manner with a second theme (2:38). This is it does even if all too briefly, smoother in rhythm and in the daylight of A flat major. Yet this is really the only preparation for the suddenly grand, resolute and optimistic coda in C major. In the introduction Abbado injects a deeper vein of melancholy: you can’t imagine the mood ever lifting. His introduction is a truer Adagio molto but his Allegro ignores the vivace aspect. While more expressively downcast than Zinman’s, it is rather heavy with it.
The slow movement (tr. 6) is all tenderness and, marked Andante, not really slow either. Zinman certainly keeps it flowing which suits its striking feature of becoming more fervent in the elaboration of the initial theme. Incidentally when the oboe solo early echoes the first violins in it, the oboist adds ornamentation (from 0:24), an imaginative embellishment. The opening theme is a rondo but with only one episode (1:36). The interest here is how its opening acerbity melts into compassion and retains this mood even as the melody almost evaporates. When this episode is later repeated it opens more starkly but is subsequently filled out by a busier accompaniment. Zinman takes all this in his stride and the impression left is of a longing recollection of heartfelt feelings. I prefer his approach to the less flowing Abbado who indeed brings more focus and intensity to the dynamic contrasts but for me over-points and over-calculates the effects.
The so-called Minuet opens in stormily resolute fashion. Its second strain comes out briefly but assuredly into a sunlight which is there all the time in a Trio whose second strain in turn grows more restless. So this symphony’s juxtaposition of darkness and light continues. I prefer Zinman here for his crisp, darting rhythms in the Minuet, still dance like if a bit rebelliously so. Abbado I find too heavy and formal. Zinman’s Trio is smoother and I prefer it to Abbado’s slower and over-pointed effects. In the finale (tr. 8) the light peeps through quite early in a happier extension at 0:29 of, or tail to, the opening theme. The lissom second theme (1:16) is all hope, catching its breath in the urgency of optimism and Zinman realizes this mood particularly vividly. It’s that extension of the first theme, prominent at the end of the exposition and in the development, that enables the piece to veer round unequivocally from C minor to C major. This is a logical progression and conclusion, yet you somehow feel it has happened surprisingly, without a deal of struggle. Modulation has suppressed angst. This might be partly because Zinman stands back and lets things take their course. Just as the instrumentation is finely balanced, strings and woodwind in close alternation and sometimes union, Zinman’s perspective has a similar equipoise. Is such an approach too neutral? Turning to Abbado the answer would appear to be yes. Abbado makes the first theme happier from the outset by giving it a more skipping quality. Aided by the lighter articulation of the chamber strings, the flute’s doubling of the first violins is clearer and creates a brighter effect. The whole thing has more zip and a sense of tingling expectation. Where Zinman is ever restless Abbado makes the exposition an eager progression to a satisfying climax. It’s Abbado who produces the electric tuttis that give the movement cogency.
To sum up, Zinman presents these two very different symphonies engagingly. There’s sensitivity to their flowing lines, a welcome lack of affectation in Symphony 3 and an intelligent clarification of the ambivalence of Symphony 4. It’s just a pity he hasn’t quite managed Abbado’s capability of creating really thrilling finales. The recording is vivid in a quite reverberant acoustic and therefore firm bass.
Michael Greenhalgh