FRANZ SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, “The Great” – Three SACD Versions =
Sym. No. 9 in C; Five German Dances – Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Ivan Fischer – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 31111, 69:47 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Sym. No. 7 “Unfinished;” Sym. No. 8 “The Great” – Musikkollegium Winterthur/Douglas Boyd – MD&G Scene multichannel SACD 90-1 1636-6, 78:31 (2+2+2) [Distr. by E1] ****:
Sym. 9 in C “The Great” – Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 372, 57:49 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
With the huge number of recordings of Schubert’s unique and lengthy symphony out there, no wonder we have almost simultaneously received three different new versions on SACD. There is plenty of controversy over who has the best performance, and it is doubly confused by the controversy over the numbering of the symphony. German scholars often call it Symphony No. 7, the most recent standard catalog of Schubert’s works lists it as Symphony No. 8, and most English speakers continue to refer to it as Symphony No. 9. The best solution is just to call it by its title “The Great” since it certainly is that.
Schumann discovered and celebrated the symphony, and hailed its “heavenly length.” Most performances run about 55 minutes, though some recordings have edited it down to less than 45 minutes – such as the otherwise excellent one on RCA Living Stereo 3-channel SACD by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the time Schumann said he thought the symphony the greatest instrumental work since the death of Beethoven. During Schubert’s short life it was considered too difficult and too long to perform the whole symphony. There is more emphasis on melody than any Beethoven symphony – which sounds appropriate considering the composer is Schubert. The melodies are somehow presented in such a way that upon first hearing each one you seem to realize it is going to take a very long time to develop. “The Great” seems to open the possibilities of symphonic structure for the massive symphonies of Bruckner.
From the first notes the spectacular performance by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer sets itself apart from others. Fischer has chosen to have the opening few notes played not on the modern French horn but on natural horns. He speaks of them sounding “like a melody roughly hewn from marble.” The woodwinds are also at the front of much of the symphony, and Schubert made more use of the trombones than Beethoven ever had. As with their performances of Mahler and Beethoven symphonies – praised by Gramophone and winners of many awards – this one shows that Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra have taken a place among the top orchestras of today’s world. The rich, detailed and sonorous sound provided by all of Channel Classics’ hi-res surround recordings makes this a winner.
The MD&G SACD combines “The Great” with Schubert’s “Unfinished” – in spite of delivering a 52-minute version of the lengthy symphony. This was a frequent pairing, but with an edited-down version of ‘The Great” – back before the capacity of a CD was lengthened to 80 minutes. I wasn’t familiar with the Swiss orchestra on this disc, but I see they’ve been around for quite awhile: under their name it says “Since 1629 the Swiss Orchestra.” Well, in that case…They give the fourth movement an especially-spirited treatment, and I’m sure when I’m set up for playing back the 2+2+2 option again I’ll find the surround just as good or better than the Channel Classics version.
The PentaTone recording is a fine treatment, and this performance is the lengthiest of the three. However, there is no filler selection on the SACD. I found the sonics to be a touch on the hard-edged side, lacking somewhat in richness. Though I haven’t done a comparison with the other SACD discings of “The Great” – let alone the many different versions on standard CD – of these three my vote goes unstintingly with the Channel Classics disc.
— John Sunier
Mack Avenue Records released a stunning live album!