SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”; Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “The Great” – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (No. 8)/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Naxos Historical

by | Mar 2, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”; Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “The Great” – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (No. 8)/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwaengler

Naxos Historical 8.111344, 79:07 [Not distr. in the USA] *****:


I well recall having the Schubert Unfinished (9-21 January 1950) with Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954) on a French HMV LP, and how the opening motif–the fluttering strings in B Minor moving after four bars into G Major–simply electrified me. Furtwaengler reconciled the magnificent fury of this work with its propensity for nostalgic sentiment without having recourse to self-indulgent bathos of any kind. The typical Furtwaengler ability to swell the sonority and the pulse, to emphasize the occasional dissonance (as in the second bassoon part against the French horn) as part of an organic progression, never ceases to amaze. The playing in the second movement E Major Andante con moto may well exceed the execution in the first: the oboes and trombones achieve an anguished intensity in organ sonorities, the composer’s aching vision of the abyss of the spirit. The spaciousness of the realization places Schubert as a direct ancestor of Bruckner, especially as the storms rise up in magnificent waves from the basses and tympani. If rebellion and rage characterize this movement, so too does reconciliation and resignation, captured in the string trills and French horn part. The clarinet in C-sharp Minor and oboe solos make affecting transitions amidst the utter heartbreak Furtwaengler wrestles from the martial strings. This music might well be Schubert’s musical equivalent to Gluck’s Overture to Iphigenia in Aulis.

Furtwaengler’s December 1951 reading of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony remains an inspired classic of its kind, lyrical and tragic at once. Having recorded the Unfinished with his “mistress,” the Vienna Philharmonic, Furtwaengler turned to his “wife,” the BPO, for this sensitive, rhythmically protean realization of this massive work. The sudden shifts of tempo and dynamics–including two distinct tempos in the first movement–bring out the Dionysian element in Furtwaengler’s temperament, a ferocity and virtuosic level of execution we associate with the equally honored inscription by Mengelberg. The fortissimos never shatter but convey a directed sense of cosmic energy, a radiant buoyancy that quite overcomes the asymmetries of the musical motif itself, rather like Beethoven’s Eroica.

Some call the oboe opening to the central Andante con moto section “exotic,” but it contrasts well with the martial aspects of the movement that bounce back and forth in major and minor modes. Furtwaengler manages a noble intensity in this movement, rife with fertile–almost hectic–climaxes of sound but equally capable of introspective intimacy of rare beauty.  The middle section offers a bucolic serenity even within the confines of autumnal melancholy. The scale of Furtwaengler’s exposition of this movement allies Schubert to the later, monumental adagios in Bruckner, especially as the melody passes through various tutti octaves in every orchestral choir, punctuated by the woodwinds. The Scherzo chugs with a confident energy, its triple meter moving in staccato and arioso figures alternately. We do feel occasionally that the impulse as interpreted by Furtwaengler sings more of Beethoven than Schubert, but the lyrical outpouring son becomes an apotheosis of the Austrian spirit. The flamboyant outer section finds a marvelous song, an intoxicated joie de vivre, in the extroverted central section in A Major. It’s hard to believe that such a simple rhythmic kernel–a dotted figure and a triplet–can generate Furtwaengler’s astounding momentum of the last movement, a veritable whirlwind of sustained force. Soon, another simple motif–four unison notes in winds and horns–appears that unites the manifold pulsations to the first movement, and so creates a colossal sense of fearful symmetry. Schubert appears as Prometheus Unbound, and this performance may be the best Schubert you will hear this year.

–Gary Lemco

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