TOP 100 REVIEWERon 31 March 2013
This fine bargain edition of live recordings of the complete Schubert symphonies uses the new numbering now that it has been proved that the supposedly lost Gmunden-Gastein symphony is the same as the "Great", D.944, formerly called the Ninth but now known as Schubert's Eighth and last symphony; thus, correspondingly, the "Unfinished" is now the Seventh.
These are by and large tenser and tauter interpretations than the genial, relaxed manner typified by many previous, celebrated interpreters. At times Maazel pushes hard and thus does not quite conjure the wit and charm that Beecham brought to his Schubert, but, these are still beautifully played performances, demonstrating that Maazel is a deft, alert, flexible Schubertian. The woodwind and horns are especially grateful on the ear; the recording acoustic is slightly "fat" and boomy but warm, with barely a sound from the audience and all sections of the orchestra very well balanced.
The early symphonies are not necessarily masterpieces and contain nothing especially memorable. Their free-flowing melodies occasionally flirt with banality but Maazel brings out their wit, tunefulness and vivacity, nicely judging the triple-time dance rhythms which alternate with more dramatic passages and conjuring up the bitter-sweet melancholy so typical of Schubert's idiom. The youthful dynamism of the Allegro vivace finale to the First Symphony carries over to the opening movement of the Second, making me wonder if Mendelssohn was familiar with it. There is kind of domestic cosiness to the Andante, then the rustic Menuetto and Trio and Presto vivace fourth movement are despatched with zest and energy.
Beecham's classic recording has long been the touchstone for the Third; it seems to me that he achieves a more characterful and better shaped "maestoso" opening than Maazel, encompassing more light and shade; Maazel strikes a more serious and restrained pose, with heavy timpani thwacks on the downbeat in the Allegretto, suggestive of a certain solemn, Beethovenian seriousness but also borrowing that composer's propulsion and drive. The Menuetto and finale are both taken much faster than Beecham and as such are of a piece with Maazel's more dynamic interpretative stance. I was further surprised to find myself preferring the clarity of Beecham's 1958/59 recording, despite its age and hiss and with Maazel I miss Beecham's touches, such as his knowing little hesitations, and to me, this is the least successful in Maazel's survey of these symphonies.
Maazel's treatment of the Fourth is urgent and vital, especially hard driven in the Allegretto of the fourth movement, culminating in a thrilling prestissimo climax. In the Allegro of the Fifth, again, fleetness is the predominant characteristic at the expense of charm; Beecham takes a more measured, nuanced approach affording him the more time to make points while Maazel skates over the music. On the other hand, Maazel adopts a dreamier, more affectionate manner in the Andante; this movement proves the exception to Maazel's generally brisker tempi but he reverts to type in the propulsive Allegro vivace which concludes the work.
This general sprightliness pays off in the Andante of the Sixth which is truly flowing, whereas Beecham's chosen speed is decidedly closer to an Adagio and drains the movement of energy. The final movement is hardly "moderato" but the scurrying Bavarian strings are fully up to their conductor's demands and take the audience on a breath-taking ride, heightening the similarity between its main theme and the Allegro vivace of the Eighth. Maazel is taking liberties here but I think he has found a solution to preventing that last movement sounding trite; Beecham opts instead for a more measured, ironic and whimsical approach.
For all the incidental delights in the first six symphonies, any complete set must stand or fall by the quality of the Seventh and Eighth, especially as truly satisfying recordings of the latter are not exactly numerous. I have always favoured Szell and Barbirolli until I recently discovered the live performance by Knappertsbusch with the VPO in 1957 and that has become my new favourite, although all three are very fine.
Maazel's performance of D.944 brings weight and grandeur to the tutti sections of the first movement but I would like to hear sharper articulation of the dotted rhythm opening to the Andante con moto. The Scherzo is first swift then sweetly fluid but Maazel's treatment of the second subject is almost casual, prefiguring a kind of rustic Schwung more redolent of Dvorák. Other conductors (Barbirolli and Kna) make less of a contrast between the subjects or take the whole thing at more of a lick (Szell); Maazel establishes a more telling contrast. He gives us a convincing, coherent vision.
The performance of D.759 is graced by gorgeous instrumental tone in every department. The opening is rather more deliberately played than with Szell, who creates a more arresting sense of brooding mystery whereas Maazel goes for a mood of nervous tension; he is also more attentive to dynamics. He opts at 3'31" to take the three minute repeat and majestically executes the disturbing middle section when a succession of weighty chords introduces the search to regain the home key. The Andante con moto is delightful; lyrical and bucolic - especially so in the development section where the woodwind are prominent.
There is much to enjoy here and this makes an excellent complete edition, even if individual recordings do not necessarily supersede established favourites.