The time: Saturday evening/Sunday morning. The place: my bedroom/office. The music: Schubert’s Eight Symphonies (those composed by his own hand: numbers 1-6; the Unfinished; and the Great C-major). The intention: to listen to the whole cycle uninterrupted (save for tea and necessary breaks). The details: recorded 3-10 July 1988 at the Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria, with analogue sound expertly remastered by Paul Baily.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016) has already recorded this repertoire with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. These concert performances with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, given over the course of a Festival week, are issued by ICA in equal partnership with the COE to represent the players’ close relationship with this conductor that was sustained over many fruitful years.
A bold slow introduction to Symphony No.1 leads to a buoyant Allegro with vivid detailing, winds shining through despite a fairly distant placing for the musicians within a spacious if not too resonant acoustic. The Andante is lovely, flowing and expressive, and the Minuet & Trio are respectively bracing (far faster than the marked Allegretto) and charming, if slower than the quickstep (Scherzo-like) surrounds. The Finale, without speeding, is joyous. (Between-movement audience-rustling and final applause are retained, as for all the works; fair enough.)
Thus Harnoncourt has set out his Schubertian stall, which holds good for Numbers 2 and 3, the latter the only beneficiary of exposition repeats so far. Symphony 2 is especially fine, vital and lyrical (a beguiling slow movement and a bouncy Finale), the COE now enjoying a closer profile. The Third in this meaty rendition comes across as a ‘bigger’ piece than it sometimes appears to be, with the second-movement Allegretto pitched somewhere between Beecham and Carlos Kleiber.
Symphonies 4 & 5 occupy the second disc, the former (‘Tragic’), Schubert’s entry into the Sturm und Drang catalogue (headed by Haydn), made trenchant and searching, serious of intent, and not relieved by the slow movement, here heavy of heart and with anguished outbursts. The angular Minuet is fully up to its Allegro vivace designation, and the Finale, full steam ahead (if regrettably with the long repeat observed … this is music that needs to carry on rather than go back) staying true to the minor key, oompah rhythms aside, which Harnoncourt makes play with, until the major is cited, resoundingly here, the final three chords emphatic. The Fifth is Schubert in sunny disposition, lightly delivered, eloquence found in the slow movement. Harnoncourt is at his most disparate for the Minuet & Trio, the latter drags, but all is well for the Finale, an articulate tempo and no repeat.
If those two Symphonies offer a contrast, an even wider one is apparent with No.6 and the ‘Unfinished’. The former, a delicious and whimsical delight (the one I’d choose from the first six), finds Harnoncourt smiling with affection on it, relishing its wit and playfulness, giving the music time to express itself (with something saved for the first movement’s faster coda), and with the affable gait of the Finale made especially winning, initially at an ideal walking pace, and if Harnoncourt does vary the pace from time to time at least he avoids the intervention and mannerisms that let down Heinz Holliger’s otherwise-fine recent taping for Sony. And so to Schubert’s dark side, the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (No.7 or 8, depending on your territory), brooding from the off as moulded by Harnoncourt, his eyes on the moderato marking of the opening movement (repeat taken), his ears on an unvarnished sound, raw even, and dynamic peaks that emotionally erupt during the development section … a sublime corollary (distant horizons among the fortissimo turmoil) is then offered by the second (final) movement: ‘Unfinished’ by name it may be, this is a Symphony that is complete in itself.
With the ‘Great C-major’ (No.8 or 9) we reach another Harnoncourt highpoint (alongside 2, 3, 6 & 8 in particular), a majestic reading with an ideal repeat stratagem, all observed save for the Finale. Harnoncourt’s unhurried approach in the first three movements pays many dividends of clarity and detailing (note the horns’ hairpins near the start of the first-movement development) without compromising impetus or drama (the uproar of the second movement). The Finale is whizzed through and features some fabulously tireless and together string-playing.
How these Graz accounts compare with Harnoncourt’s Amsterdam and Berlin versions I cannot say for I have never heard them, unfortunately. On their own terms these with a committed, fiery and sensitive COE are notable for Harnoncourt’s numerous perceptions, exactingly prepared, and very few eccentricities. I enjoyed and was exhilarated by the journey undertaken, and triumphant at the concluding chord of the ‘Great’, deemed by Harnoncourt to attract a diminuendo. The booklet includes a note from the conductor’s widow, Alice, as well as reminiscences about the maestro from COE members. ICA Classics ICAC 5160 (4 CDs).