Although it shouldn’t be totally unexpected given the heritage of the orchestra, Simon Rattle’s new Schubert Ninth, recorded live in June of 2005, is superficially like Herbert von Karajan’s only stereo recording of the work, recorded (also for EMI) with the Berliners in 1978, which was incomparably sleek and at the same time sumptuous. But where Karajan never really seemed to reflect on the music, Rattle does, at times so deeply that he and the music create some truly magical, spaced-out moments. His phrasing is not as drop-dead gorgeous as Karajan’s was, nor does he follow such a predictable rhetorical pace, tending to be curious rather than commanding. The result is Schubert’s greatest symphony played with an appealing new freshness and an extraordinary sense of happiness at odds with the gloomy psychological picture that in recent years has been drawn of the composer.
The spaced-out Rattle intersects with Schubert’s poetry most movingly in following the progress of the slow movement, in the haunting Trio of the third movement (where the woodwinds are magnificent), and, unexpectedly, in the restless energy of the finale. This being a live performance, there are occasional though almost infinitesimal slips, but you probably wouldn’t notice them if you didn’t know.
Recorded in the Philharmonic’s hall in Berlin, the sound has tremendous size and space, with a full, rich bass and superb wind and brass timbres (not to mention a super though totally natural focus on the orchestra’s kettledrums!). It not only takes volume enormously well, it benefits substantially from it. If the sound in the standard CD format is this good, one can only imagine what the SACD will do when it comes!
– Laurence Vittes