October 25, 2012
(++++) ELEGANCE FROM GRENOBLE AND BASEL
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $41.99 (4 CDs).
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.
Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“Liturgique”). Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.
Schubert gets little respect as a symphonist. Oh, two of his symphonies get a lot of respect – the “Unfinished” and No. 9 (the “Great C Major”). But symphonies were not this composer’s strong suit in the way that chamber music and, in particular, songs were. Schubert had trouble getting symphonies finished – he started at least a dozen of them, meaning the “Unfinished” is not the only one deserving that title. Some contain fascinating and forward-looking elements, such as No. 10 (a partial work written, yes, after the “Great C Major”) and No. 7, which the composer completed in short score but of which he orchestrated only 110 bars (it is this symphony that is responsible for the confusion in numbering the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major”). The first six, written for amateur performance, are tremendously charming and jam-packed with melodic delights, but they have some awkwardnesses in construction and really give no hint of what was to come in later works (it is actually No. 7 that is the transitional work – a reason it deserves more-frequent performance in one of the several completions that have been made). Cycles of Schubert’s symphonies are at their best when they give the first six symphonies plenty of scope for lightness and melodic flair, reserving greater intensity and a stronger sound for the final two (assuming No. 7 is omitted, as it usually is). Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble get the contrast between the earlier and later symphonies just right, resulting in a beautifully scaled and delightfully played set that can be enjoyed as much for the warmth and lovely proportions of the earlier symphonies as for the profundities of the “Unfinished” and No. 9. Minkowski is equally adept at bringing home the Haydnesque elements of the first three symphonies, the Beethovenian ones of No. 4 (called “Tragic” even though it achieves only pathos), and the Mozartean feeling of No. 5. No. 6, now called “Little C Major” even though Schubert himself called it “Grosse sinfonie [Grand symphony],” takes on the role of transitional work here, in the unfortunate but typical absence of No. 7: Minkowski allows No. 6 a larger scale and grander presentation than the first five symphonies receive, but not at the level of the final two. He handles those as the pinnacles of Schubert’s symphonic achievement, which they indisputably are. The “Unfinished” gets a somewhat-slower-than-usual first movement, broadly and emotionally interpreted, followed by a somewhat-greater-than-usual feeling of the second movement being essentially its continuation (its tempo indication is virtually the same as that of the first movement – one of many Schubertian innovations here). As for the “Great C Major,” here Minkowski – whose orchestra performs on period instruments or replicas – adds woodwinds and a double bass to double some parts, creating a full, rich sound that portends that of Bruckner (for whom Schubert was a greater influence than is usually acknowledged). Minkowski’s emendations may strike some listeners as sacrilegious, but they do succeed in giving additional weight and gravitas to a work that remains thoroughly remarkable on all levels. The one real peculiarity – and irritation – of the Minkowski set is the way the CDs are set up: the first offers Nos. 3, 1 and 2, in that order, for no good reason; the second presents No. 5 before No. 4; and the third includes the “Unfinished” and then No. 6. This is just silly – the only disc that makes sense is the fourth, which is wholly devoted to No. 9. But these performances are so fine that the strange sequencing is only a small annoyance.
Sinfonieorchester Basel is not an original-instrument orchestra, but this large (100-piece) Swiss ensemble proves itself just as capable of lightness and elegance in early Schubert as Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Sinfonieorchester Basel is yet another orchestra that has recently established its own eponymous CD label, featuring recordings of live performances, and the Schubert disc shows Dennis Russell Davies firmly at the ensemble’s helm and fully comfortable with the lilt and spirit of these early Schubert symphonies. The finale of No. 3 is especially exhilarating – it is marked Presto vivace, and Davies decides that means just what it says, conducting at a breakneck pace that a lesser orchestra might have had trouble maintaining. Sinfonieorchester Basel keeps up without apparent difficulty, and the result is a rousing conclusion to a work that is otherwise played with just the right light touch. No. 5, the most lightly scored of the first six Schubert symphonies, sounds fine, too, with Davies’ tempos slightly more deliberate than Minkowski’s but not therefore making this piece seem any more profound than the pleasant divertissement that it is. The pairing of these two particular symphonies is a trifle odd – why not Nos. 3 and 4, or 5 and 6, for example? But hopefully this CD will be just the first part of a Schubert cycle by Davies and Sinfonieorchester Basel – although the orchestra’s label’s use of live recordings means that further releases will depend on concert programs.
It would also be wonderful if the new Honegger CD from Sinfonieorchester Basel were the start of a cycle of this composer’s five symphonies. Honegger is Swiss, so perhaps the orchestra will pay more attention to him as a countryman than he generally receives. Unlike the Schubert pairing, the one of Honegger’s First and Third symphonies is intriguing, because the “Liturgique” is one of his best-known works, while No. 1 is almost never heard in concert. Honegger’s First, which dates to 1929-30, is a three-movement piece whose central Adagio is almost as long as the two outer movements put together. It will remind some listeners of Pacific 231, the composer’s best-known work, or of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 of 1924, with which it shares a similar sense of cacophony within structure. Honegger’s rhythms are stark and intense, the symphony’s sound generally dissonant, and the overall feeling is one of considerable percussion focus even though there are no kettledrums called for. In contrast, Honegger’s “Liturgique” (1945-46), although it too is dissonant and even stark in sound, deliberately contrasts the horrors of World War II with prayers for hope and peace – each of the work’s three movements is prefaced by words from the Requiem Mass. Honegger drives home the terrors of war repeatedly, even at the start of the final movement (“Dona nobis pacem”), allowing a sense of calm and resolution only at the very end. Sinfonieorchester Basel plays these works with knowing skill and idiomatic attentiveness, and Davies leads them with as much care and attention to detail as he provides to Schubert on the orchestra’s disc devoted to that composer. Both these Sinfonieorchester Basel releases are very worthy additions to the catalogue of their respective composers’ works, and mark a fine start to yet another top-notch label presenting the performances of yet another first-class orchestra.