Schubert’s Great C major Symphony – Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great C major)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Recorded “live” on 10 June 2006 in Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: August 2008
Duration: 59 minutes



In an earlier recording of Symphony 9 for Telarc (there is also an Orchestra of the Enlightenment version for Virgin Veritas), Sir Charles Mackerras wrote a note in the booklet emphasising the importance of keeping an identical pulse through the link from the Alla Breve introduction into the Allegro ma non troppo thereby avoiding the ‘traditional’ accelerando between the two. He proved the effectiveness of his theory during that Telarc interpretation with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and does so again in this concert taping.

This is one of several examples where Schubert, quite apart from creating melodies of supreme genius, demonstrates his remarkable sense of form and symmetry. The ‘Great C major’ is a work set in perfect classical form, and perhaps the only reason why listeners (and sometimes musicians) are not aware of this, is simply because of its considerable length. A further example of this is to be found in the first movement when, at its close, Schubert asks for a twice-stated full-orchestra repeat of the introductory horn-call – the music having been increased in pace twice since its initial statement. It does not sound faster because the note-lengths have been increased, therefore Schubert brings off this brilliant stroke of having the dignified theme played at an excitingly rapid speed without losing its essential nobility.

Conductors such as Karajan, Norrington and Toscanini take the composer at his word and firmly hold the tempo right to the end of the movement. It is always a matter for concern if the tempo is pulled back as soon as this final double statement returns. Conductors who impose a sudden braking effect here include Beecham (who did not record the work), Boult, Josef Krips and Bruno Walter and they fail to convince. Barbirolli, Klemperer, Konwitschny and Kubelík choose what I would describe as a very decent second-best option whereby they slow only at the last statement of the theme.

This performance is full of remarkable moments and the sound quality is warmer than I would have expected from the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The quality of the timpani-playing is very suitable – not the hard, military sound of the 18th-century orchestra nor the comforting warmth of these instruments in their powerful underpinning of Bruckner’s music, the Philharmonia’s drums are positive and clear but with just that hint of roundness which would not have been required in, say, Haydn. Their clarity is underlined in the final chord of the first movement where the timpani are strictly in time but the orchestra makes a tiny delay for emphasis thereby creating a hint of untidiness – but then this is a live performance.

The way in which Mackerras sweeps the second subjects of the outer movements forward is a most satisfying element, and the massive climax in the slow movement is a triumph of power and dramatic expression. I am not always convinced by a slowing of tempo for the cello aftermath of this shattering passage, but the conductor’s eloquent arched phrasing allows this moment of relaxation to intensify the drama without hindering the progress of the music. The finale is certainly triumphant; Mackerras elicits fierce drive without resort to excessive speed and the gentle winding-down of the music just before the commencement of the coda creates a wonderful atmosphere.

Despite my various concerns, I find much to admire in this revealing, often very profound, Schubert performance. I must however point out that the claims of this release are that it is a recording of a live event – which it is in many respects (the presence of an audience is noticeable and applause is retained) – yet there is very strong evidence to suggest that it does not precisely represent what actually took place on the evening of 10 June 2006.

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