Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi – Schubert’s Great C-major Symphony [Signum]

4 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Recorded on 1 October 2015 in Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: June 2016
Duration: 53 minutes



This is a carefully thought-out interpretation and it’s immensely gratifying that Christoph von Dohnányi has nothing to do with those impositions that the first movement sometimes has to bear. There is no hint here of traditional over-slowness in the introductory Andante. Usually that habit requires an unmarked accelerando in order to arrive at the Allegro. In this section Schubert indicates one further tempo modification by requiring più moto 115 bars before the end. All too often conductors shift speed numerous times before this and worse still they haul the tempo back at the coda’s return of the opening horn theme thus ruining the triumph. Dohnányi entirely respects Schubert here. Where this reading differs from literal obedience to the score is in the subtlety of phrasing; each melody is rendered poetically without hindering the flow of the musical argument. Whether the composer expected the opening announcement by horns to have so many swells and fades is a matter for conjecture but it is shaped musically. One particular pleasure was to hear the second subject urged forward with exciting eagerness.

The Andante con moto is given a delightfully bouncing rhythm and Christopher Cowie’s oboe solo exploits the optimistic side of Schubert’s charming melody; this overall impression of cheerfulness makes the unexpectedly tragic climax all the more dramatic.

There are points that require care from recording engineers such as the need to carefully balance the trombones (rare visitors to symphonic music in Schubert’s day). Here problems are acceptably overcome in the first two movements; however, by bar 6 of the Scherzo there is a matter of concern. At this point Schubert begins subtly to echo the main theme, cleverly using quiet timpani strokes to do so; this effect also occurs 72 bars before the end of the Scherzo. Unfortunately at these points, only an unclear mumble is to be heard from the drums. More disturbing still is the inconsistency of the repeat scheme. Dohnányi makes only the first, third and fourth. The missing repeat is the second section of the Scherzo which means that 237 bars are lost. It is also a matter for regret that at the Trio, the conductor no longer obeys Schubert’s tempo instruction and fails to sustain the speed. That this section is played so beautifully is no more than slight compensation for the loss of rhythmic impulse and, inevitably, the return of the Scherzo had to be reached via an unmarked increase in speed.

In the context of a concert performance, Dohnányi’s omission of the exposition repeat in the Finale is acceptable and an admirable sense of exhilaration returns. Adrian Bending’s emphases at critical moments featuring timpani (now heard more clearly) make some important points and the conductor’s very personal rendering of the great second melody has great charm. A particular feature is the beautifully blended woodwind section which displays Schubert’s sonorous orchestration to great advantage. The care taken by Dohnányi over the quieter sections is very impressive: a wonderful hush enhances the magical ending of the exposition.

There is no doubt that Christoph von Dohnányi has great sympathy for and understanding of Schubert. The entirely unnecessary retention of applause indicates that his very perceptive conducting was much appreciated on the night, but my own admiration lies only with three-quarters of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content