Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Sir Colin Davis conducting Staatskapelle Dresden. Profil. $16.99.
Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.
Schubert’s ninth and last symphony is called “Great” to distinguish it from his sixth symphony, also in C Major, which is called the “Little” or “Small.” But No. 9 is great in other ways: in scope, in length, and in its creation of a style that opened the way for other symphonists to work in a form that many people in the early 19th century believed was played out after Beethoven’s Ninth.
Schubert was moving toward a monumental symphony throughout his last years: No. 7, which he did not finish orchestrating, is a large-scale work; No. 8, the official “Unfinished,” has two magnificent movements that together last a full half hour, but Schubert created only a little bit of a third movement before abandoning the work. No. 9 was the fulfillment of this tragically short-lived composer’s enormous potential in symphonic development – and there is so much packed into the “Great” that conductors can and do find and emphasize very different elements of the score.
The new Profil releases of “Great” performances by Sir Colin Davis and Günter Wand are about as different as they can be. Both are live recordings, the Davis from 1996 and the Wand from 1993. The Davis version is about three minutes shorter (51 minutes to Wand’s 54); what matters, though, are not the tempo differences but the tremendous difference of approach to this work by these two outstanding conductors.
Davis conducts a “Great” that is fleet and flowing. The sound is clean and clear, and there is a feeling of ease of progress throughout. In the first movement, Davis stays with the indicated tempos, letting the music swell and subside like waves of sound, and resists speeding up at the end. The second movement takes some getting used to: marked “Andante con moto,” it here gets a strong emphasis on the “con moto” and sounds significantly quicker than usual (this movement accounts for almost the entire difference between the total time of these two recordings). Yet Davis does not hesitate to take a very long, very effective pause at this movement’s climax. The third movement seems slow after the second, but really is not, and the trio has the lovely lilt of a ländler. The naturalness of the orchestral playing here is a big plus – and it continues into the propulsive finale, where the balance among strings, horns and winds is particularly good and the contrast between forte and piano is especially effective. The end result of the Davis reading is a bright, forthright “Great” that clearly looks forward to Bruckner while standing on its own as a work of unexcelled originality.
If Davis re-creates the “Great,” Wand shapes it to his will. There is plenty of rubato in the first movement, especially in transitional sections, and the coda is started quite quickly – then slowed down. Wand seems to be trying to emphasize the structure of the symphony, but in so doing he denies its natural flow. The second movement’s slow tempo is effective, the trumpet entries are nicely done, and the orchestra plays with warmth, but some individual touches are a little prissy – examples being a slowdown about two minutes before the end and some ponderous final chords. The third movement, in contrast, is light and free-flowing, and the finale has an impressively dramatic, intense opening. Wand gives the trumpets prominence in this movement, too, with a strong martial effect, but he gives short shrift to the lovely second theme, which is one of Schubert’s most felicitous. In addition, the sonic quality of this recording is a bit hollow – lacking the crispness of the sound on the Davis CD.
There are charms aplenty in both these performances, and both represent legitimate approaches to Schubert’s “Great” symphony by conductors who clearly know just what they are looking for. The Davis reading certainly deserves a (++++) rating. Wand’s will also be worth (++++) for listeners who like this meticulous conductor’s highly personal approach to the score; but for listeners in general, a (+++) rating is more appropriate.
December 14, 2006
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