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Schubert: Symphonies 2 & 4 - de Vriend

Schubert: Symphonies 2 & 4 - de Vriend

Challenge Classics  CC 72739

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Schubert: Symphonies 2 & 4

Residentie Orkest The Hague
Jan Willem de Vriend (conductor)


Schubert composed his first five symphonies while still a teenager, but they represent just one facet of his prodigious fluency. At this time some of his musical ideas bear a family resemblance to certain themes from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but already his own musical character is evident. He began his Second Symphony in December 1814 and had finished it by 24th March the following year.

He completed the Fourth Symphony in about three to four weeks during April 1816. We should not read too much into the Fourth Symphony’s “Tragic” appendage, added by Schubert as an afterthought. It may be merely an example of the flippant comments which he wrote on some of his youthful scores, but nevertheless the symphony has more gravitas than its predecessors. Schubert also includes a second pair of horns to enrich the texture. Actually, this is the only piece of non-programmatic music to which he gave a descriptive title.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 30, 2018

I’ve long been asking myself why there are such differing ideas about Schubert. Take for instance his five youth symphonies, like the two here on disk. Is there a common view? I don’t think so. On the one hand there’s a school of thought having a tendency to merely look at the sunny side of his youth: The happy, talented son getting ample opportunity to develop his compositional skills. But there’s another one, too - to which I belong - putting question marks as to the circumstances under which Schubert grew up to adolescence and the psychological consequences of it for his compositional style.

Judging by recent radiant, refreshing performances in the hi-res catalogue, some in HIP style, hitting all the right quality buttons, one must conclude that ‘the sunny side’ now has it. Even to the point of removing a layer of old grime from the ‘Unvolendete’. On the other hand, those seeking to delve deeper into Schubert’s mind should listen to Karl Böhm and his Vienna Philharmonic to find a different take. Too large an orchestra? Maybe. But in my view many modern chamber orchestra versions miss the magic combination of ‘song and sorrow’, so omni-present in Schubert’s works. Böhm has grasped this undertone, making Schubert the inimitable major composer he was. Even as early as his ‘juvenile’ symphonies. Listen to this live account of the second, recorded in the summer of 1976 in in the Salzburg Festspielhaus (Austria): URL https://youtu.be/sBAJG3zpIhU . Large-scale it is, and some will find it, according to today’s taste, sluggish, but the tension of ‘sorrow’ is there.

To properly understand Schubert’s creative mind is, I believe, by no means easy. Who is this person “divided into love and sorrow” (Shubert’s own words). Walter Dahms (Schubert, Verlag Schuster & Loeffler, Berlin) puts it this way: “Wer dieses Leben voll erfassen will, muß seine äußere und innere Tragik verstehen lernen”. Freely translated: Whoever wants to fully comprehend this life, ought to learn to understand his outer and inner tragic. Many will, of course, know about his tragic incurable illness (for which he got toxic mercury treatment!), but that was later in his short lived life (from the eighth symphony onwards). But there are various other elements having played a role in shaping his personality at a younger age. Notably growing up with a rigid minded father with whom Franz developed over the years a hate love relation, living in a simple Vienna suburb in a small apartment, together with 13 siblings of which only 5 reached adulthood. And also his subsequent escape in drink and frivolous life, followed by his modest and introvert solitude, devoting all the time he could muster to composing, and last but not least having to live in the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose successes he admired and whose ‘successor’ he longed to become.

With this in mind I started listening to this first release of what is promised to become a complete survey of Schubert’s symphonic output (will it include the completed sketches of no. 10?) asking myself the question: Will this be the comprehensive account, skillfully combining ‘love and sorrow’ to bridge the gap between the schools’ tastes?

The second symphony is given a sturdy reading with an orchestral complement of around 55 musicians. Not as heavy as Böhm’s with the Vienna Symphony, though. Not as dramatic either. And with the help of Bert van der Wolf’s sound engineering, the soundstage is clear, detailed and pleasant. De Vriend ably keeps order in the house, letting the score blossom, avoiding an otherwise all too often presented ‘salon’ performance. And he didn’t miss the opportunity to express the hammering effect of obstinate persistence in the short, third movement. A hopeful beginning which made me eager to hear the next.

Most accounts on record of the fourth ‘tragic’ symphony are not tragic at all. Why? It is commonly understood that because Schubert added the name as an afterthought (to distinguish it from the first three youth symphonies?), not much importance ought to be given to it. The liner notes advance the same idea: “We should not read too much into the Forth Symphony’s ‘Tragic’ appendage …”. I beg to differ. Schubert could have given it any other name. But he did not.

Some time ago I was quite pleased with Gordan Nikolic’s views on Schubert’s ‘Tragic’ symphony: Schubert: Symphonies 4 & 5 - Nikolic, to my mind firmly nestled in the ideas of those seeking depth rather than sparkle, and all I said is still valid. The difference is that de Vriend's account has lighter textures, giving more room for ‘song’, although de Vriend, too, lets brass and tympani sweep up the tragic temper in the generously energetic rendition of the first movement. And as I expected, de Vriend and his Residentie Orkest do also strike a clear hint of ‘tristesse’ in the slow second movement. Such in contrast to those who do not believe in the tragic connotation of the fourth, calling it ‘nostalgic’ rather than ‘tragic’.

Putting this against the perfectionists versions of Dausgaard and Nott (and I agree with all the accolades they got for sheer musicianship), I note that these sound almost too perfect, too polished, somehow falling short in conveying the correlation between optimism and tragedy; between love and sorrow; between hope and despair, as put so coherently on display by de Vriend.

I think that we have here a most promising start, doing not only justice to a composer that merits all our attention, but also satisfying all Schubert followers by putting together the various strands of vision in comprehensive settings. I’ll be looking forward to de Vriend’s account of the ‘Unfinished’ - “the sad music that makes one happy” - and ‘The Great’. But in the meantime it is a pleasure to congratulate all those participating in this first release for already lifting two of the 5 youth symphonies a cut above the rest.

A final word about the orchestra:

The Residentie Orkest The Hague (which now seems the definitive international name, rather than The Hague Philharmonic), used to be, next to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the second best symphony orchestra in The Netherlands, but lost this position to other formations, notably the Rotterdam Philharmonic with the advent of their enterprising Music Directors, Valery Gergiev and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It would seem to me that choices made by the management a couple of years ago (when Neeme Järvi left), start bearing fruit and may culminate when in 2021 the new permanent Home will be ready.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2018 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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