August 11, 2011


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. The Hanover Band conducted by Roy Goodman (Nos. 1-4); Camerata Salzburg conducted by Sándor Végh (Nos. 5-6, 8, 9). Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).

Mendelssohn: Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Emanuel Gruber, cello; Arnon Erez, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     It is not always easy to figure out what “complete” means in classical music, and Schubert’s symphonies are a particularly thorny case in point. He wrote all or parts of at least 10 symphonies, but only one recording, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, has ever tried to capture everything, including several small symphonic fragments; and it required considerable editing and reconstruction of several works (by Brian Newbould, who among other things “completed” the “Unfinished”). Schubert’s Seventh is particularly difficult, since he completed the work but did not orchestrate it. It exists in several versions and in many ways looks forward to his Ninth, but is very rarely heard in any form. More often, “complete” Schubert symphonies leave out the Seventh altogether (as well as the Tenth, which was about half-finished), offering six early symphonies, the “Unfinished” (which of course is not Schubert’s only unfinished symphony) and the “Great C Major.” This is an expedient approach that unfortunately leaves a huge gap between No. 6 and No. 8, as if Schubert suddenly attained a level of symphonic maturity through the grace of Euterpe herself. In any case, the new Brilliant Classics compilation follows this tried-and-true approach, re-releasing the first four symphonies in Roy Goodman’s interpretations (licensed from Nimbus) and Nos. 5-6, 8 and 9 conducted by Sándor Végh (licensed from Capriccio). The result is an uneven but generally very fine Schubert set, quite well priced and having one really significant advantage: all the works, even the Ninth, are played with small enough ensembles so that they sound as they would have in Schubert’s time (although several of them were performed only after the composer’s death). There is no gigantism here, and the distinctly Mozartean flavor of the early symphonies comes through particularly well under Goodman, whose interpretations have a touch more verve and ebullience than do those of Végh, as well as somewhat better playing. The differences are closer to quibbles than to significant interpretative matters, though. All the performances are well done, the interpretations thoughtful and generally well-paced – although Végh is perhaps a trifle too speedy in the final two symphonies, making some elements of them seem perfunctory. For a reasonably priced, good-sounding set of most (but not all) of Schubert’s symphonies, this is a very fine choice.

     There is no argument about Mendelssohn’s complete music for cello and piano: all of it fits nicely on a single CD. There are two sonatas, a set of Variations Concertantes, and two very short works: Song without Words, Op. 109 and Assai Tranquillo. The most interesting pieces are the Variations Concertantes, whose considerable technical demands indicate that the composer’s brother, Paul – for whom the work was written – was a highly accomplished amateur cellist; and the Sonata No. 2, a four-movement work that includes reflections of Bach and very considerable playfulness, especially in the finale – even though Mendelssohn was under considerable stress when he wrote it in 1843. Emanuel Gruber and Arnon Erez fit their instruments seamlessly together in these works and the others on the CD: the men play with great appeal and so sure a sense of camaraderie that they seem to have an intuitive connection. There is no awkwardness at all in any of the phrasing, tempo changes or interpretative elements – everything flows smoothly and naturally, with the result that the music’s uplifting and outgoing character comes through clearly from start to finish. When there is profundity, or at least sadness or a touch of melancholy – and there is some in these works, if not much – Gruber and Erez bring it forth effectively as well, not dwelling or swooning but expressing the darker emotions and then moving on. Mendelssohn wrote all his cello-and-piano pieces for specific cellists whom he knew; they are therefore, in a sense, occasional works. But thanks to the warmth and elegance of Gruber’s and Erez’s playing, they become something more: glowing examples of music that, if not very well known in Mendelssohn’s oeuvre, deserves to be heard more frequently and to hold a higher place among his compositions.

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