November 27, 2013


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     There is nothing new in the assertion that symphonic style changed dramatically during the 19th century, but listeners sometimes are unaware of how much it changed within the output of a single composer – two particularly clear cases in point being Schubert and Bruckner. Brilliant Classics’ release of some very fine 1978-1981 recordings of Schubert symphonies by Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt makes the stylistic difference between earlier and later Schubert symphonies particularly clear. Schubert’s first six symphonies are generally light, fleet, and strongly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, even though their handling of both form and harmony is quite different from the earlier composers’ approaches. No. 4, called the “Tragic,” would more appropriately be designated the “Pathétique” if Tchaikovsky’s far more depressive work had not rendered that description inappropriate for Schubert’s lighter one. This is a work that makes some passes at pathos in the first movement and then rapidly reverts to typically Schubertian melodic warmth and beautifully lyrical themes. The first three symphonies, their first movements all being their longest and all opening with slow sections, all flow with apparent effortlessness from theme to theme and oftentimes from key to key, as Schubert does not so much develop themes as pile them upon each other and repeat them out of what often seems like sheer joy. No. 5, the most popular of these early Schubert works, eschews the slow opening and is lighthearted and poised throughout. No. 6, the “Little C Major,” melds Rossinian influences with those of Haydn and Mozart and sounds like a transitional work – but a transition to what? The answer is the Symphony No. 7, which exists only in short score and is, alas, almost totally neglected, even though several attempts have been made to complete it and it has very occasionally been recorded. Like most “complete” sets of Schubert symphonies, Brilliant Classics’ omits this work, and that is a shame, because without it, the two final and very famous Schubert symphonies seem to have sprung from a world entirely different from that of the first six. No. 8 is called “Unfinished” even though Schubert actually left a number of symphonic fragments behind, some of them quite good. Blomstedt gives this work all the grandeur possible in its two surviving movements (part of a third movement exists but, as with the whole Seventh, is almost never heard). The two movements are at essentially the same tempo (Allegro moderato more or less equals Andante con moto), and it is the shaping of them rather than their pacing that distinguishes them. They come across here almost as a single extended fantasy-like movement. As for Symphony No. 9, the “Great C Major,” Blomstedt handles it quite expansively, allowing its frequent repetition of themes (a major structural building block) plenty of time to coalesce and build. Extended passages of this work remain in a single key – in contrast to what happens in the earlier symphonies, when Schubert often simply drops one key and picks up a new one – and this can produce either serenity (when the work is well-played) or boredom (when it is not). Staatskapelle Dresden’s sureness with the music, and Blomstedt’s willingness to give the symphony all the time it needs to flower, produce a very fine reading that caps this Schubert cycle in a way that makes the composer’s stylistic changes abundantly clear.

     In Bruckner’s case much later in the 19th century, changes of style and emphasis often show up within the same symphony, as the composer made revision after revision – either because of changes he wanted or because he was urged to make alterations in order to gain better or more-frequent performances of his works. There are three very different versions of the Symphony No. 4, which Bruckner himself called the “Romantic,” dating to 1874, 1878-80, and 1886-89. The one that is most often heard, and the one performed on a new PentaTone release by Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the middle one, which includes changes to the first, second and fourth movements from 1874 plus an entirely new third movement that is usually called the “hunting scherzo” because of its persistent horn calls. Stylistically, Bruckner’s Fourth in this version represents a move by the composer away from the pervasive influence of Wagner (which is most apparent in the Third, especially that symphony’s first version) and in the direction of finding and developing a voice entirely his own – although highly “Brucknerian” elements had been present in the earlier numbered symphonies as well. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is not, in terms of its sound, as well-suited to Bruckner as some other fine European orchestras, notably in Germany and Austria, but it is a first-rate ensemble in terms of the balance of its sections and precision of its playing – something that has been noticeable throughout Janowski’s Bruckner cycle. Janowski is a particularly thoughtful and analytical conductor, and his recording of the Fourth, while certainly not lacking passion, never wallows in emotion and never seems on the verge of spinning out of control or sprawling, which Bruckner symphonies can so easily do. Janowski is an outstanding conductor of Wagner operas, and some of his operatic instincts stand him in good stead in his Bruckner symphonies: his Fourth is a series of individual scenes that nevertheless build to a final, all-encompassing climax in which the various elements of the earlier movements are skillfully brought together in an entirely satisfactory conclusion. It is still sometimes said that Bruckner’s symphonies sound very much alike,  but Janowski gives the lie to that canard by tailoring his performances to each work’s individual stylistic elements. In the case of the Fourth, this results in a work that does indeed sound Romantic and, at the same time, grand – without being grandiose.

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