Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Brisk Franz

Portrait of Franz Schubert, oil on wood by Gábor Melegh, 1827; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
There’s so much pity and sentimentality built-in to the stereotype of Franz Schubert as the short, sad, socially-awkward fellow who died too soon. It blinds us to the passion and vigour and intellectual depth which fills his best music. And these two symphonies undoubtably represent a great achievement, the finest symphonies between Beethoven’s and those of Brahms and Bruckner.

There’s lots to like about Philippe Jordan’s version of this music with his fine Viennese players. The string sound of the Wiener Symphoniker is as silky and sensuous as their colleagues in the Philharmonic. The brass and woodwinds are more than solid, and the rhythmic pulse in both works is strong and alive. But this nimble, agile performance has a bit too much day-at-the-office routine about it. I want more mystery in my Unfinished, and The Great is only Great when it expresses more tension and power. I was coincidentally listening to Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Unfinished (with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a DGG disc from 1994) when the new Jordan review disc arrived in the mail. It has a layer of dramatic tension missing in the new recording. Schubert never got the experience and feedback he needed to develop his operas into masterpieces, but in this symphony he comes up with slow burns and climaxes that would kill on stage. Sinopoli’s mastery in the opera pit gives him a better line on those dramatic impulses than is evident in this highly competent but ultimately unsatisfying recording from Vienna.

A note on numbers: The Unfinished was written in 1822, while The Great was started in 1825 and finished in 1827, the year before Schubert died. So the old-fashioned European numbering as #7 and #8 doesn't make too much sense. We know them over here as #8 and #9, which at least has them in the right order. But I know: it's complicated.

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