Schubert: Symphonies, Masses 5 & 6, Alphonso & Estrella - Harnoncourt

Schubert: Symphonies, Masses 5 & 6, Alphonso & Estrella - Harnoncourt

Berliner Philharmoniker  BPHR 150061 (9 discs)


Classical - Orchestral

Schubert: Symphonies, Masses 5* & 6**, Alphonso & Estrella***

Luba Orgonášová* & Dorothea Röschmann**/*** (sopranos)
Birgit Remmert* & Bernarda Fink** (altos)
Christian Elsner**, Jonas Kaufmann** & Kurt Streit*/*** (tenors)
Christian Gerhaher*/**/***, Hanno Müller-Brachmann*** & Jochen Schmeckenbecher*** (basses)
Rundfunkchor Berlin*/**/***
Berliner Philharmoniker
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt once said, “Schubert is the composer who is closest to my heart” – and in this edition, Harnoncourt and the Berliner Philharmoniker present a brilliant and multifaceted portrait of the composer. It of course includes Schubert’s symphonies – from the too little-known early works to the “Unfinished” and the “Great” C major Symphony. With Schubert’s final two masses, central works of Romantic sacred music are also represented, plus there is a first-class discovery with the opera Alfonso und Estrella.

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Broggio - June 14, 2015

This set contains no less than 514 minutes of music; I have listened to it all (at least) 3 times and greatly enjoyed the vast majority of them.

Starting with the symphonies, these seemed to form three groupings: 1-5 & 8(9), 7(8) and 6. Turning to the least impressive account, that of the "little" C major No. 6, there was some uncharacteristic (for the cycle) rubato that strayed well into mannered territory in the second subject of the first movement to this listener. In similar vein, the marked reduction of tempo in the second subject of the finale may have worked well in concert but quickly grates on repeated hearing. It's a pity for the clean reading of the second movement and some wonderfully wide dynamics in the Scherzo were rather undermined by the outer movements. Schubert: Symphony 6 + Rosamunde excerpts - Thomas Dausgaard is still my preferred choice unless a "big band" is required, in which case the more conservative approach found in Schubert: Symphonies 5 & 6 - Nott will suffice.

The "Unfinished" stands out, not for any interpretative deficiencies but for the sheer power and scale of Harnoncourt's interpretation. Standing at polar opposites, in modern terms, to Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 - Thomas Dausgaard (a "must listen" account to make one completely question the way this marvellous torso is performed), this is an epic reading by comparison in both scale of vision and the numbers of players on the platform. The Berliners may not have turned out their entire string sections for this performance but they clearly number far more than the SCO's 30 (including wind & brass) but at least as significant is the pacing; Dausgaard (near enough literally) waltzes through the first movement in 11 minutes, Harnoncourt takes 17 - both observe the exposition repeat. The slow movement is closer in conception but Harnoncourt affords Schubert more than 3 minutes than Dausgaard judges to be sufficient. The start gives a clue as to Harnoncourt's conception: the basses are given significantly more weight than usual, lending a very ominous tone to the "Es muss sein" quotation shortly before the tremolo strings begin. As experienced elsewhere, the accompaniment to the melodies is extremely telling, pulling incessantly at the long lines above or below them. The development section is also given an extremely solid foundation by the basses and is transformed into a very threatening sequence with the (here) towering climaxes driven by barking horns and upper strings that sound possessed. As this remarkable movement draws to a close, Harnoncourt's stretching of the silent fermata to almost unbearable lengths adds yet more emotional power to the coda. The second movement is no less special - it is unusual to hear the strings being allowed to be so trenchant under the the woodwind chorales which are (just) allowed to fly above these scalic figurations; as alluded to in the notes, Harnoncourt feels a deep spiritual affinity between Schubert and Bruckner and this is writ large in this movement. The playing of the second subject by the principle woodwind players is gorgeous and they seamlessly pass the material from one to another as the accompaniment caresses their subtly rubato inflected melodies. A highly thought provoking and moving account from beginning to end.

The remaining symphonies are played very differently, arguably as one may have predicted given Harnoncourt's well known proclivities for HIP. (As an aside, the only video in this set is an extensive interview with Harnoncourt in which he consistently and without apparent irony rails against musicologists!) Although the number of players is far nearer Schubert: Symphony No. 8 - Nott than that employed by Dausgaard (and other chamber orchestra accounts), the style is far more in keeping with Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (9), 5 German Dances - Fischer. There can be no mistaking the muscular athleticism of the Berliners in this music which, compared to Abbado's wonderful cycle with the COE, is less sunny in tonal picture but is far brighter in balance than many similarly large-scaled accounts. One slightly odd aspect is the inconsistent seating of the strings; one would normally expect the two violin sections to be seated antiphonally throughout under Harnoncourt but this is not the case!

The first symphony, unusually for the rest of the cycle, ignores the first movement's exposition repeat. Generally, I found myself noting the same comments for each movement of these (early) symphonies: Allegro's are appropriately quick without trying to break any speed records, the "slow" movements flow very nicely indeed with prominent woodwind so that it often sounds as though Mendelssohn and Schumann is being foreshadowed. The outer parts of the third movements are all treated (whether marked as such or not) as Scherzo's; the Trio's are then much slower (as if Landler) but the playing is so winning, it is hard to complain. The finales are often so well played & so "neat" in the articulation that they initially sound as though they are relatively pedestrian until Harnoncourt allows the Berliners off the leash in the tutti passages. Combined with a reasonable dash of rubato throughout, these accounts are tremendously exhilarating and make one appreciate these wonderful symphonies anew. Despite the relatively large forces here, the woodwind and brass are more prominent in the "Great" C major symphony that brings out rarely experienced colour. In the first movement, the Berliners respond magnificently to Harnoncourt's request to deliver long and short-term crescendo's to thrilling effect which is capped by a coda (without any broadening) that ends in a blaze of orchestral glory that in no way can be accused of grandstanding. The second movement is very much "con moto" and is rewarded with translucent playing arising from the judicious use of vibrato that is a joy to the ear. The remainder of the account shares similar qualities with the "early" symphonies. There is one (and the only one) tiny tonal tarnish about 2/3 of the way through the finale where a flute is slightly sour for one chord; others may not care for the diminuendo on the final note. Neither of these aspects should not detract from what were clearly magnetic and life enhancing performances - there is a wonderful sense of momentum that carries itself across the entire work in a most joyful manner.

Next up are Schubert's grandest masses. The 5th mass is accorded a slightly strange performance here; the Kyrie and Gloria are strangely under characterised in some sections of the orchestra which then seems to lead to some less crisp choral contributions. From the Credo onwards (and for all of the 6th mass) the performance suddenly comes to life with fully engaged musical contributions from all concerned. Lastly, we are treated to a rarity, Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella. The story is essentially "banished King's son falls in love with banisher's daughter"; the music is a meeting of Rosamunde with (a toned down) Der Freischutz but perhaps lacking in melodic genius or the sheer drama of these masterpieces. All involved with the performance respond with audible enjoyment and deep commitment and it makes for a very rewarding two and a quarter hours.

All these performances were taped in concert in the Philharmonie. The "Great" symphony apart, one would be hard put to tell this for audience noise is almost completely absent (as are "lapses" by the performers) and the sound is generally very clear. Interestingly, when the performances are weakest, the sound becomes relatively opaque! Generally speaking though, the Berliners have rarely sounded better on disc and their range of power is showcased to great effect here.

The booklet contains some very interesting essays on Harnoncourt's relationship with Schubert's music, Harnoncourt's approach to musicology for these works (with an interesting disconnect with the video interview contained on the Blu-ray!), texts in (latin) German & English for the masses & the opera. There are brief notes on the works themselves but those wishing to uncover more of the background of these or Schubert's life at the time of composition will need to look elsewhere.

Overall, an enthusiastic recommendation but with reservations over the performances of the 6th Symphony and 5th Mass.

Copyright © 2015 John Broggio and


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