SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417 “Tragic,” and Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D. 485 – Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/ Gordan Nikolić – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 340 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:
It’s remarkable to note that of the eight canonical symphonies of Schubert (one famously unfinished), six were written by the time he was twenty-one. More remarkable is that they are all in the repertory and are all routinely recorded by orchestras great and small. (No. 7 is mostly written in orchestral score as a single line of music for the melody instruments and so doesn’t really count since it requires “realization” in order to be performable.)
Symphonies No. 4 and 5 were composed in 1816, when Schubert was all of nineteen years old. As with Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, they are a radically-contrasted pair, which makes them attractive and frequent disc mates. Schubert himself applied the epithet “Tragic” to the Fourth, which puzzled early hearers of the symphony. But as Ronald Vermeulen explains in his notes to this recording, the name should be interpreted as “in the spirit of Greek tragedy,” so have a fairly cool-headed exploitation of minor-key darkness and drama without the angst that Schubert would explore later in works such as the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (No. 14).
Like most of Schubert’s early symphonies, No. 4 shows minimal influence of Beethoven. The most Beethovenian touch is in the Minuet third movement which, if played at Schubert’s Allegro vivace, emerges as a scherzo in all but name. In the present recording, unfortunately, the movement is taken at something like an allegretto, with the result that it sounds more like galumphing ländler than dashing scherzo. The Fourth Symphony also employs the largest orchestra that Schubert had used up to that time, with four horns rather than the usual two.
In thorough contrast, the Fifth Symphony has the lightest orchestration of any of Schubert’s symphonies, dispensing with trumpets and drums. It’s a tribute to Haydnesque classicism, with much of the charm and even some of the wit of the older composer, including a brief series of wind chords and run in the strings that stand in for the first-movement slow introduction typical of Haydn. This is probably Schubert’s best-loved symphony besides the final two, and in its modest way, it is as perfect a symphony as Schubert produced.
Violinist and conductor Gordan Nikolić is artistic director of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, which he leads with elegance and aplomb. The playing is both committed and engaging, but the interpretations tend toward the overly romantic, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in early Schubert. There is too much point-making rubato throughout the Fourth Symphony, and then that rather soggy Minuet is a real letdown. The performance of the Fifth Symphony is more effective, though again I think the tempi a trifle sluggish. One nice feature, though: Nikolić observes all repeats, which isn’t always the case.
If you want performances of these works that tend ever so slightly toward the romantic, Abbado on DG is a safer bet. And while I find that Neville Marriner and his excellent symphony (on Philips) capture the proper classical feel of these works, some swear by the classically-minded Harnoncourt (on Warner Classics). What I’ve heard of his collection sounds a little hard-driven to me, but then, to each his own.
Though I haven’t listened to the PentaTone recording in surround sound, the SA stereo is well done, with very present winds, potent brass and percussion, good bass definition. So while this recording certainly has its points, competition is stiff, and there are finer performances of both works available.
– Lee Passarella