Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Nikolaus Harnoncourt records Schubert’s Eight Symphonies [ICA Classics]

Schubert - The Symphonies [Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Nikolaus Harnoncourt] [Ica Classics - ICAC 5160]
3.5 of 5 stars

Schubert                            ­
Symphonies 1-6; Unfinished; Great C-major

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded 3-10 July 1988 at Styriarte Festival, Graz, Austria


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2020
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5160 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 12 minutes

These 1988 concert performances of Schubert’s Symphonies are given excellent analogue recordings by Austrian Radio, providing a consistently rich sound.  Perhaps Nos 1 & 4 have a touch more ‘presence’ but the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe is well detailed within a generous acoustic.  The only quibble is the irritating inclusion of applause after every Symphony.

The orchestral sound obtained by Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not the same as we hear in his readings of eighteenth-century music.  Schubert’s music foreshadows the Romantic period; perhaps this is why these performances differ from those of the conductor’s Haydn or Mozart.  The woodwind players blend beautifully and as individuals are given freedom to be expressive, but the timpani do not display the sound of period instruments being struck with hard sticks; instead they support the texture firmly without being particularly positive.

In performance there is carefully considered phrasing which enhances the beauty of Schubert’s melodies. Structure is appreciated when it comes to repeats – most are made.

For all the apparent faithfulness to Schubert’s muse, choice of tempo is controversial, but the faster-than-conventional speeds usually make sense within the context of the interpretations and even the wildly fast tempo for the Finale of No.3 is convincing.  Swiftness does not spoil No.5 although the first two movements lack gracefulness.  The slow movements are not hurried but there are some personal whims as in the opening movement of Symphony No.4 where the coda suddenly races to a conclusion. The same thing happens at the end of the equivalent movement of No.6 but this sounds more comfortable and Harnoncourt is not the only conductor to do it.  More controversial is the approach to that work’s Finale where quiet music is played unhurriedly and loud music is fast.  In the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony the opening Allegro moderato lacks impulse and the beautiful second theme is taken at a slower pace than the remainder.

Listening through the works in order, No.1 gave an initially good impression sounding quite Beethovenian (the extraordinarily Eroica-like theme in the first movement helped give that impression) but at the Menuetto there was the first indication of trouble to come. Schubert tended to give an Allegro marking to his Minuets but in all of them at Harnoncourt’s rapid pace the dance-like qualities are lost – in No.3 it is so fast that the music tumbles unrhythmically forward.  In fact the fast Minuet tempo indications are taken so fiercely in the first five Symphonies as to be highly unsettling.  Worse still, every Trio section collapses in tempo.  In No.6 Schubert writes a Scherzo and, unusually, asks for the trio to be a little slower but Harnoncourt exaggerates the difference.

Symphony No.9 is convincingly interpreted.  Opening with an exceptionally beautiful horn call the juxtaposition of tempo between Introduction and Allegro is ideally judged and importantly Schubert’s faster coda is kept strictly in tempo (a rare occurrence).  There are some moments of flexible tempo in the Andante con moto but all are forgivable – especially the relaxation for the magical moment concerning which Donald Francis Tovey famously wrote of the horns: “They toll like a bell haunted by a human soul.”  Sadly the Trio of the Scherzo does not quite hold the tempo although on this occasion the reduction is not great.  Anything the Finale loses in grandeur as a result of the rapid tempo is made up for in excitement.  Harnoncourt makes absolute sense of the final moment where, in company of only very few other conductors, he obeys Schubert’s disputed marking of decrescendo for the final long chord.

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