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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 The Great (1825) [62.47]
Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, 19-23 September 2011, Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna and 24-25 September 2011, Auditorium, Bolzano, Italy
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4652 [62.47]

My colleague Michael Cookson received his copy of this disc slightly earlier than me and in time not only to make it a November Recording of the Month but also one of his 2015 Recordings of the Year. I can well understand his enthusiasm.

Was any other twentieth-century conductor responsible for the foundation of as many orchestras as Claudio Abbado, I wonder? The Orchestra Mozart was the last such. It was established in 2004 and fittingly it was a project in his native Italy, under the auspices of the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. The orchestra is a large-sized chamber ensemble – on this recording the strings number 12/10/8/7/5 with double wind, horns and trumpets, three trombones and timpani. Most of the personnel are young players but a few seasoned musicians were brought in to give the young musicians the benefit of their experience. As an example, I see that the principal viola was none other than Wolfram Christ, the highly distinguished former principal violist of the Berliner Philharmoniker (1978-1999). In the closing years of his career Abbado enjoyed a very close relationship with Orchestra Mozart.

The present performance of Schubert’s Ninth was recorded at a series of concerts spread over a few days in Bologna and Bolzano in 2011. It’s worth noting that at each of these concerts the programme was completed by a Mozart piano concerto, played by Maria João Pires. The concertos in question were numbers 20 and 27. DG has already released these two performances, back in 2013, on a CD which I’ve not yet heard but about which I see Michael Cookson was extremely enthusiastic (review).

This Schubert recording is one about which it’s not really necessary to say a great deal. It is, quite simply, probably the best played performance of the Ninth that I can recall hearing and Abbado’s direction of it is masterly. His pacing of each movement seems well-nigh ideal and he frequently uses dynamic contrast for effect or moulds the music with subtle tempo modifications in the way that a conductor such as Furtwängler would have done.

The introduction to the first movement is beautifully poised; already the sheer quality of the orchestral sound and the detail that emerges effortlessly suggests we’re in for something rather special. When the Allegro ma non troppo arrives the music surges joyfully. Abbado takes the exposition repeat and in the development section he makes the most of Schubert’s more dramatic moments. The Andante con moto opens with a delightful oboe solo and thereafter the other woodwind principals match that standard. Abbado manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making the music sound sprightly yet never hasty. The second subject is exquisitely voiced, the strings silky. Though most of the movement is wonderfully relaxed the climax (from about 9:04) is powerfully built and achieved.

Abbado moulds the scherzo quite a bit, rounding off its edges most persuasively. The trio swings very pleasingly with what I would call sophisticated rustic charm. Hereabouts the woodwind section makes a superb contribution. The finale bursts from the traps with great gusto. In this movement conductor and players invest the music with a great deal of light and shade but the happy momentum doesn’t really slacken. Abbado brings the symphony home in a blaze of C major optimism. There’s no applause but I bet that at the concerts themselves the audience went wild.

This is in no sense a “final” concert; I don’t know if Abbado went on to make further appearances with Orchestra Mozart before his death in January 2014. However, recently I’ve had the good fortune to hear recordings of concerts that Abbado gave in his last couple of years with the Berliner Philharmoniker (review) and with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (review). The distinguished conductor must have been aware that his career was drawing to a close yet neither in those concerts nor in this Schubert performance is there any sense of leave-taking. On the contrary, what distinguishes all of these recordings is the sense of a great musician continuing to explore music and to renew his approach even to works that he must have conducted many times. There’s also a determination to maintain the highest possible standards of musicianship, working with top-flight players.

As I indicated earlier, this is one of the finest recorded performances of the Schubert Ninth that I’ve heard. It’s superbly played and the conducting is fresh and supremely musical. The performance has been captured in excellent sound and I noticed no evidence that it had been edited together from performances in two different venues.

Even if you already have several recordings of this symphony in your collection I urge you to make room for this one too.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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