Customer Review

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Schubert + Vienna Philharmonic + John Eliot Gardiner = winning combination, 1 Aug 2011
This review is from: Symphony No.9 (Monteverdi Chr, Gardiner) (Audio CD)
I've always been slightly ambivalent about John Eliot Gardiner's recordings in general and his virtues as a conductor. Whilst I admire a handful of his interpretations for their vitality and energy - such as Mozart's Magic Flute, his Elgar recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and several of the Bach Cantatas - I'm sometimes irritated by the clipped, straight-jacketed approach towards phrasing and a certain lack of charm in a lot of other recordings.

Now when I saw this recording on Amazon, I was so intrigued that I just had to buy it. Eliot Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert...mmmm, I wonder how that will sound? Before listening to the CD, I was expecting Gardiner to have perhaps moulded the Viennese sound into something a bit more lean and ascetic. Rather surprisingly I found that the performance was more of a compromise than I thought it was going to be. We get the warm tone of the Vienna Philharmonic, played with just enough expressive vibrato to bring the piece to life, allied with a more energetic and classically-oriented approach to this symphony from Gardiner. The last point is not particularly surprising - as you would expect, Gardiner doesn't view Schubert 9 as some kind of proto-Brucknerian work as so many other conductors do, but rather plays it for what it is - a late Classical/early Romantic symphony with a slight nod towards a more Beethovenian style of interpretation.

You might think that performing it in a slightly Beethovenian manner would be entirely inappropriate (after all, this is a long-breathed, poetic type of symphony compared to the tautness of Beethoven's motivic development), but I was surprised to find that Gardiner's approach worked rather well, especially for the first and last movements. Too often have I listened to this symphony in recordings where the conductor takes ALL the repeats - stretching the third and fourth movements disproportionately in my opinion. This is especially problematic in the Finale, where, let's be honest, there is rather a lot of unadulterated C major. Who in their right mind would want to listen to the repeat in such a movement? For me, it's too much of a good thing. Gardiner's recording clocks in at a swift 52 minutes - just about right in my opinion. He takes the usual exposition repeat in the first movement, the normal procedure for the third movement (but not repeating things twice over) and no repeats in the Finale.

You might think that Gardiner would take very fast tempi in all four movements, but I was surprised to find that there are other recordings out there which are even swifter (Wand for instance). The first movement is very well balanced with Gardiner taking a slightly more conventional approach in terms of pacing and phrasing. There is plenty of energy and bite in the sound and this is allied with the more luxurious tone of the string section when Schubert gently eases us into a more lyrical world. The Andante is where I think Gardiner's more ascetic approach doesn't work quite as well. Of course the advantage with a more flowing pace is that the listener is able to appreciate the symphonic thread of the melodies, but I felt that there was a certain lack of charm here. You really have to give this movement a bit more space to breathe and this is where Gardiner falls back on his clipped, straight-jacketed approach towards phrasing. Ultimately it's not as successful as it could have been.

However, the Scherzo and Finale positively bounce along with an unbridled sense of joy and warm sunshine. Gardiner still lets his Viennese players induldge in the usual rhythmic subtleties in the Scherzo, but they are all played with great style and do not disrupt the larger rhythmic structure. The Finale under Gardiner now acquires a new lease of life - the playing is warm, energetic and technically flawless. I really felt as if I'd been re-introduced to a great symphony after listening to the final movement.

As a bonus we get a hear a very interesting Goethe setting - Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D.714. This is performed with great subtlety and style by the men of the Monteverdi Choir together with the lower strings from the Vienna Philharmonic. As you would expect from this scoring, the work acquires a very dark, mysterious quality, almost veiled in places. There is much imaginative writing from Schubert and some extraordinary beautiful singing from the tenors and basses. Overrall, this is a most intriguing piece that I hope will be performed more often.

The sound quality is superb - as you would expect from Deutsche Grammaphon. All the orchestral details are there but this is allied with a lovely atmospheric bloom to the sound which is very easy on the ear. It was recorded in 1997 in Salzburg.
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