SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 6 in C Major, “The Little”; Symphony No. 7 (8), “The Unfinished” – Royal Flemish Philharmonic/ Philippe Herreweghe – PentaTone

Herreweghe’s Schubert is first-rate in every way, though PentaTone’s resonant recording won’t appeal to all tastes.

Published on October 17, 2012

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D. 589, “The Little”; Symphony No. 7 (8) in B Minor, D. 759, “The Unfinished” – Royal Flemish Philharmonic/ Philippe Herreweghe – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 381 [Distr. by Naxos], 56:27 ****1/2:

Lasting over thirty minutes in performance and with a nine-minute finale, Schubert’s Sixth Symphony is certainly not little by early-nineteenth-century standards. It’s called “The Little” to distinguish it from that other C-major symphony, the one of “heavenly length,” according to Schumann, the so-called “Great” C Major. But Schubert’s Sixth Symphony is not only short in length compared to the other; it’s short in terms of stature. (Of course, “The Little” is not Schubert’s epithet; ironically, he called his Sixth Symphony “The Great Symphony in C.”) Its jovial mood and endlessly meandering finale with its chattering woodwind indicate that Schubert, like the rest of Vienna, was in the thrall of Rossini in the eighteen-teens. In fact, while he was working on the Sixth, Schubert also penned his more overtly Rossinian Overture in the Italian Style, D. 591 (also in C major). For me, the most accomplished movement is the quicksilver scherzo, in which Schubert’s usual lyricism is given a more Beethovenian gloss—note the subito pianos and the rapid dialog between upper and lower strings.

Then, as the notes to this recording state, Schubert entered a “symphonic crisis.” Between 1818, the year of the Sixth, and 1822, the year of the Seventh Symphony (some still number it the Eighth, but more about that later), Schubert produced no more than a series of symphonic fragments that clearly impressed him as false starts. His first six completed symphonies had sounded like Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven, and finally Rossini, and thereafter Schubert was obviously searching for his symphonic self, which he finally found in the unique statement of the Unfinished Symphony. But—not before he had penned a kind of missing link, which some still refer to as the Seventh Symphony in E Major, D. 729, of 1821. It is complete in piano score, and parts of the first movement had been orchestrated by Schubert. According to Brian Newbold, who completed the orchestration of the work, Schubert had grand plans for the symphony, as it employs the largest orchestra of any of his symphonies. I find it a pretty impressive work, though one is always skeptical of pieces completed by hands other than the composer’s. At any rate, D. 729 does provide some clue as to how Schubert managed to make the big compositional leap from the Little C Major to the Unfinished Symphony.

And still the Unfinished is such an individual work as to have no counterpart in the Classical era. Schubert takes a large risk in launching his symphony with a leisurely-unfolding Allegro moderato that provides not a lot of contrast, in terms of tempo, with the following Andante con moto. It’s a risk that pays off, as the first movement explores worlds of darkness and light, of the tenderly lyrical and the tragically dramatic, that are new to Schubert’s musical geography. The serene Olympian grace of the slow movement is an equally individual statement. Reportedly, when the first audiences heard the lilting second theme of the symphony, the whispered name of “Schubert” sounded throughout the hall. But by then Schubert wasn’t an unknown composer, because the date of the first performance of this great work was 1860, thirty-two years after his death.

Philippe Herreweghe is so closely associated with the music of Bach and of the baroque in general, that music lovers might have a tendency to cubbyhole him, though he has successfully explored music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including excellent forays into Beethoven, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn, among others. So it’s not surprising that his Schubert is very fine indeed—rhythmically alive, dramatically taut, with just the right blend of tenderness and grit. Tempi, orchestral balance, dynamics—everything about these performances seems just about ideal to me. The recording venue, Queen Elizabeth Hall in Antwerp, is obviously a resonant one, and yet orchestral detail is mostly sharp, thanks to relatively close miking. The ambience lends a nice sheen to the strings as well, though I can understand if some listeners find the resonance too much of a good thing. I’m happy with sound and certainly more than happy with the performances, which are some of the finest I’ve heard in quite a while.

—Lee Passarella

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