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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
Symphony no. 5 in D major, D485 (1816) [29:39]
Symphony no. 6 in C major, D589 (1817-18) [30:36]
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. Tonhalle Zurich, 7-9 September 2012, DDD
BMG RCA RED SEAL 88725 46336 2 [60:21]

David Zinman begins Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 with lightly articulated joy. Come the second part of the first theme (tr. 1 0:43) there’s also an element of firmness and a spirited approach to rhythm. This, combined with a pleasant inflection of melody and a light grace in the second theme (1:06), makes for an active pastoral feel to the first movement. This opens the door to agreeable transitions to crisp development and sleek recapitulation.
The recording I shall use for comparison is that made in 1986 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 4778689). Abbado is a touch faster (6:47 against 7:09), more bustling and animated but less at ease, albeit displaying greater dynamic contrast.
The second movement (tr. 2) is both warm and emphatic, for example the stress on the fifth note. Within a carefully measured progression and shape Zinman obtains a lovely singing line - from the violins especially - and a sensitivity to nuance. The second theme (2:37) muses with delicacy, strange territory explored with an open mind. This is followed by an almost nonchalantly deft recapitulation. Abbado, here slightly slower (9:33 against 9:16) is more sedate. He lacks Zinman’s fresh simplicity in his first theme but shows more fascinating poise, indeed coyness, in his second theme. Zinman creates more of a retrospective, even autumnal feel.
The third movement Minuet, really a Scherzo, is lightly articulated. Zinman brings out its constant mood changes. The second half of the phrases of its first strain subvert the first half’s phrases. Zinman’s Trio is relaxed, homely and mellow. Abbado’s Minuet is more suavely shaped and dancing but the phrasing of his Trio is too self-conscious.
Zinman’s finale (tr. 4) is slower than Abbado’s: 8:13 against 7:21. This makes it cheery and comfortable. The striving ascents of the second part of the opening theme (0:58) are more brightly realized by Abbado. On the other hand, Zinman’s second theme (1:24), though pleasantly soothing, is less strongly contrasted in terms of charm. The development (4:45) is an exploration of the beginning of the first theme, with apparently wide aspirations at first. These soon subside into relaxed musing. This mix of features is more smoothly accommodated within Zinman’s overall approach.
Symphony No. 6 is the most droll of Schubert’s cycle. Its light-heartedness is very enjoyable but its weighting is tricky. In the introduction to the first movement (tr. 5) Zinman goes for a flowing approach. It’s more Adagietto than the marked Adagio but this brings out its tunefulness. Abbado’s recording, made in 1987, is more leisurely, taking 2:09 to Zinman’s 1:45. Thereby it seems a little indulgent and the sforzandi, the sudden loud accents, feel rather heavy. In the main body of the movement Zinman gives us a sprightly Allegro headed by chirpy flutes and peppered with bracing tuttis. The second theme (2:29) is jolly and lilting but also purposeful. The development (5:30) is playful and the fast coda (8:23) exciting. For me the contrasting of the loud passages is too trenchant, too robust. It is as if Schubert is to be displayed as a precursor of Berlioz. Abbado achieves more freshness by creating greater urgency of propulsion for these firmer passages. This is contrasted with a more gauzy, will-o’-the-wisp approach to the material introduced by the flutes. With Abbado everything fits together cohesively, though Zinman brings a more distinctive character to the second theme.
For the second movement (tr. 6) Zinman adopts a tempo rather slower than the marked Andante, more of an Adagietto again. This has advantages in bringing more warmth. There’s emotion too, carried by vibrato in the violins, and details of instrumentation are more defined. This is an account full of graceful movement and I prefer it to the truer Andante of Abbado, timing at 5:41 to Zinman’s 6:26. The latter’s demisemiquaver descents are a bit too thrown off. Zinman’s contrasting second section (2:25) fares less well. Again there are sforzandi and they are rather stodgily treated. Abbado delivers these with typical urgency and freshness. That said, Zinman is more successful at pointing the delicate ambivalence of mood towards the close of the movement. There the triplet rhythm of the second section combines with the melody of the first to create the effect of a variation. He also achieves a feel of becalming at the close. I prefer Zinman’s appreciative simplicity of manner to Abbado’s seemingly more calculated sophistication.
To the Scherzo Zinman brings an irresistible momentum which enlivens its contrast: feathery strings against boisterous tuttis. The Trio is marked ‘a little slower’. Zinman gauges the contrast well so that it seems to exist in a cool, reflective suspended animation relieved by an interlude of running quavers in the violins. In the Scherzo the strength of Zinman’s woodwind pitted against the strings is striking as is the bracing density of tone and appreciable detail of instrumentation. Abbado doesn’t give you this. He concentrates more on very deft, virtuoso display of the strings, with greater edge to their darting rhythms. The whole movement is jollier but the Trio, which goes with a swing, is hardly any slower. As it happens Zinman’s Scherzo is 4 seconds faster than Abbado’s but his Trio plays for 1:56 against Abbado’s 1:29. This is a refreshing contrast.
The finale (tr. 8) is marked Allegro moderato. Zinman goes for an out-and-out Allegro which works to his advantage in infectious pace and a sense of fun. The first theme is that of a flibbertigibbet, the second (1:13) a blazing tutti fanfare alternating with semiquaver gyrations. The third theme (1:48) finds the woodwind jubilantly assertive against a backcloth of high tremolando violins. The fourth (2:20) is memorable for the sheer, delightful effrontery of 9 notes rising step by chromatic step on the flutes only to descend in mirror image to the starting point. Thereafter progress is achieved solely by rhythmic and dynamic contrasts. This is all very invigorating and at Zinman’s pace the finale, with its similar technique, seems particularly close to that of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Abbado gives us an Allegro moderato, timing at 10:13 against Zinman’s 8:37. Abbado’s opening is more petite. The structure of the movement is more apparent. Everything is neatly self-contained, though the tuttis are firmly contrasted. Schubert’s love of variation of melody and scoring emerges clearly. But in comparison with Zinman this all seems a bit staid. Zinman impels the musical argument forward. That indeed might summarize the whole CD. These are spirited interpretations in which Zinman looks to put something of a different gloss on these works. I’m not sure he’s always successful, and I’ve noted my reservations, but his attempts are worth hearing.
Michael Greenhalgh