Symphony No.9  in C, D944 (Great)
Recorded 19-22 September 2006 in Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: TUDOR 7144
Duration: 62 minutes
Many years ago a dreadful wine was sold in supermarkets. The label boasted that it was made from grapes from various European countries. Perhaps because of closer ties within Europe it seems, in more recent years, that many European orchestras – even including some distinguished examples – tend towards the fault of blandness that was the problem of that well-intentioned brand of wine; that is to say: respectable-grade European orchestras often sound much like one another.
Of course the truly great such as the Vienna and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras do not fall into this category, but it is refreshing to note that the Bamberg Symphony, perhaps not among the first European orchestras to come to mind, has a very characteristic and most attractive tone. Its early history showed a mix of German and Czech musicians – I do not know if this influence still exists but the timbres are certainly individual and the woodwind section is magnificent with a hint of Czech rusticity, beautifully balanced both within the section itself and within the orchestra in general. It is also refreshing to hear balancing that does not have a prepossession with the strings. A characteristic of Schubert’s scoring here is his adventurous use of trombones and these too are in ideal focus.
The ‘Great C major’ Symphony is generally known as No. 8 in Germany so British collectors (used to No.9) may be confused by this number being given in Tudor’s presentation. Jonathan Nott’s performance is broad throughout yet is full of propulsion. The full-scale orchestral sound suits this music very well – weight of tone never compromises clarity (something aided by the use of antiphonal violins). In this context the modern symphony orchestra is the ideal vehicle for presenting Schubert’s wonderful breadth of vision. The reason why the ‘heavenly lengths’ of this magnificent Symphony never outstay their welcome is that the structure is as perfect as that of a model Haydn Symphony and Nott seems to realise this.
Although the work lasts over an hour, its form is such an important feature that the observation of all repeats enhances the music and defines its structure. Nott does this as did Norrington in his benchmark version. Nott also realises that indulgent changes of tempo cannot work in this music. True, he is by no means metronomically strict and some may not warm to his slightly personal shaping of phrase-ends or his occasional leaning on upbeats, but these are not really disruptive. Above all he is to be applauded for avoiding the dreadful old tradition of suddenly and pompously reducing tempo in the coda of the first movement at the moment the introductory horn theme returns on full orchestra. By this point Schubert’s Allegro ma non troppo has been increased in tempo at the start of the coda by a Più moto marking so it should be fast and exciting – and with Nott it certainly is.
Although the Andante con moto is not fast (nearly two minutes slower than Norrington for example) Nott gives it a delightful springing pulse and moulds his subtle shaping of phrases without interrupting the elegant rhythm.
The scherzo is another matter: the tempo is unusually relaxed, although still faster than with Klemperer in his controversially slow reading, and after a while this casual, untroubled progression seems very convincing – this music can take such bucolic relaxation. The shaping within the trio is also very interesting with a slight relaxation before repeats that has a natural feel and is not disruptive but there is a serious difficulty at bar 249. This is where repeated horn-notes introduce the wonderfully songful theme of the trio. In the context of a calm, dancing rhythm up to this point it seems a surprising disruption when the horns enter late – the gap may not sound too great but at the rapid 3/4 pulse of Schubert’s scherzo the entry is actually a whole bar late. Worse still, the horns are slack in rhythm and the start of the trio is even slacker which means that the delightful lazy swing of the movement is lost. The repeat of the scherzo recovers the lost momentum, and to the credit of the conductor he does not let this happen suddenly, but the damage has been done and the listener is left with the feeling that the trio is dawdling, even thought its speed is only marginally slower than that of the scherzo.
The finale enters very promptly – an excellent dramatic effect. Again the tempo is not fast but the drive is so invigorating that the speed convinces, because the music sweeps along with strength and purpose.
This is a performance of perception and understanding. The full textures are a delight to the ear. The few moments of subjective phrasing are largely made acceptable because of their conviction and the application of true rubato – Nott achieves flexibility without over-imposing.
I am left with the mystery of the trio section, since within this very positive performance, that section is so indeterminate. For comparison I tried thinking of performances of this work by romantically-inclined conductors and came up with a recording by Sir John Barbirolli who was never afraid to become personal in interpretation yet when performing the scherzo and trio of this symphony he was ideally strict in tempo throughout.
Of the many recordings of this work I am able to single out one that is absolutely outstanding: Norrington and the London Classical Players – smaller orchestra, period instruments, faster tempos – yet the spacious nature and perfect structure of the music are achieved. Nott approaches the music from a more modern concept – his performance falls gratefully on the ear from beginning to end and his understanding of Schubert’s construction is close to the truth. Nott is a fine conductor and I want to hear more of him (he has broadcast some superb Beethoven).
This is among the best recordings of the ‘Great C major’, yet it is not the greatest – nevertheless I rate it as quite special.