Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Vladimir Lande, St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94243.

Time was, record companies could barely accommodate the Schubert Ninth Symphony on a single disc, especially if it were a really slow reading observing all the repeats, or if the record company were saving other Schubert material for another disc. These days, we often get not only the Ninth but additional works as well, in the case of this Brilliant Classics release the entire Eighth Symphony. OK, the companion work is only two movements, not being called the "Unfinished" for nothing, but that's beside the point. It's always nice to have the two symphonies alongside one another.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 "Unfinished," which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) probably started writing in 1822 but got only halfway through before leaving it for other things.

Maestro Vladimir Lande begins the Eighth with a good, brooding introduction providing plenty of quick forward momentum. Before long things settle in to a more moderate pace, with occasional portions actually slowing down a bit too much. Still, Lande captures Schubert's lyrical grace pretty well whether he's barreling full throttle or following a more-relaxed course. The thing is, we hear more such contrasts throughout the symphony than we normally do, which for some listeners could make it either a unique and satisfying experience or a fairly frustrating one. I tend toward the latter response, even if the second-movement Andante is a little too cautious, lessening the beauty by attempting to draw it out too much.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, the "Great" and final numbered symphony, which the composer dated 1828, has an oddball history because he probably didn't write it in 1828, and it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than the year of his death, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert's orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The Ninth didn't even see a public performance until 1839, eleven years after the composer's death. Today it is one of the staples of the classical repertoire. Go figure.

Lande opens the Ninth with less power than I would have liked and less rhythmic bite. Then, after a few minutes the continued contrasts come back into play, and the conductor picks up the pace considerably, to the point of almost sounding rushed. It's exciting, to be sure, but I'm not certain he doesn't lose some Schubertian charm in the process.

The second-movement Andante, with its dirgelike march, comes off well enough, Lande reminding us of Beethoven here. The conductor ensures it sounds well elaborated, with just enough variety for it not to become taxing on our patience. After that, Lande gives us a lively yet relaxed Scherzo that lacks only a degree of Schubertian lilt, leading with a vengeance to the finale, which seems to outrace all contenders.

While Lande's readings may be a little unconventional, he does not overdo them. Indeed, one has to applaud him for not following other conductors sheepishly in his approaches to these symphonies. Nevertheless, unless one is a dedicated collector or a die-hard Schubert fan, one might find greater joy in the recordings of Otto Klemperer (EMI), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Eugen Jochum (DG), Charles Munch (RCA), or Charles Mackerras (Virgin) in the Eighth and Josef Krips (Decca/HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Charles Mackerras (Virgin or Telarc), Georg Solti (Decca), George Szell (Sony), or Gunther Wand (RCA) in the Ninth.

Recorded in October, 2010, at Melodiya Studios, St. Petersburg, Russia, the Brilliant Classics sound is typical of what we often hear from Russian and mid-European orchestras. It's very smooth and very well balanced but not exactly transparent enough or extended enough to fall into the audiophile category. It's pleasantly realistic, moderately distanced, with a decent sense of orchestral depth and just enough ambient bloom to simulate the acoustics of a concert hall. Now, if only the midrange had been a trifle clearer, the bass and treble better extended, and the dynamic impact a tad greater, it would have made a good thing even better.

The disc includes a helpful set of notes from music critic Malcolm MacDonald as well as from Maestro Lande, in which the conductor explains why he chose to interpret the two symphonies the way he did. Along with a good-looking cover picture of Beethoven's funeral, it makes an attractive package.


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