Schubert’s Fifth Symphony opens with four comfortingly sunny bars featuring woodwind followed by a gently urgent theme on strings. At once it is evident that the music will represent the composer in optimistic mood so it is surprising to hear John Eliot Gardiner phrasing the music with expressive swells and fades – this does not seem to suit the fresh innocence of the ideas. At the exposition repeat there comes a shock – the four opening bars are missing: whether an editing fault or Sir John Eliot’s decision, to be thrown straight into the string melody seems brutal. The movement continues with a fluid approach to tempo with slight hastening at climaxes. Following the repeat the woodwinds introduce the key-change somewhat untidily and when the main tune returns it is at an unexpectedly slower tempo than previously.
The remaining movements are played in a style that more effectively represents Gardiner’s sympathy for music of this period. His sensitive touches suit the gentle Andante con moto although the final minute of it becomes slower and slower – an effect bordering on eccentricity. Perhaps Allegro molto is a confusing marking for the succeeding Minuet. It should indeed be played quickly but it must permit the Trio to be taken at the same tempo. Here that section enters leisurely, varies in tempo and ends slower still causing the return of the Minuet to seem rushed. No whims interrupt the Finale – a sprightly performance and it is easy to forgive the hastening in the coda because it is effective.
Autumnal is a word often used to describe the music of Brahms and here it is particularly appropriate. It was daring of him to have scored the Second Serenade without using violins, trumpets or timpani, yet the subdued colours still give interesting variations of timbre. Gardiner’s careful shaping of individual phrases is far better suited to Brahms than to Schubert and he also allows the music to flow more freely. The Scherzo and the quaintly-named ‘Quasi menuetto’ avoid any changes of pulse for their central sections. With strong violas, the rich combination with woodwinds achieves a powerful symphonic sound – this is imaginative orchestration.
Perhaps the best-known recording is by Sir Adrian Boult (LPO/EMI) – sobriety and steadiness enriching his reading. Gardiner sets out to be more vivid and his tendency to tighten the rhythm at climaxes is evident. After a leisurely opening movement, a deeply felt Adagio non troppo and two calm dance movements, the vibrancy of the Finale makes an ideal conclusion and the composer’s addition of piccolo adds spice to the excitement. Again Gardiner adds a personal touch through his rapidity at the end – it works but is slightly undermined by applause – an unnecessary annoyance which could easily have been removed.