Schubert: Symphonies 5 & 8 (CD review)

Symphony No. 8 completed by Brian Newbould; Rosamunde Ballet Music No. 2. Sir Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Virgin Classics 50999 628605 2 9.

The two most-salient features of this reissued coupling are (1) that Sir Charles Mackerras conducts both the Fifth Symphony and Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) using a period-instruments band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and (2) he conducts the completed version of the Eighth using an educated reconstruction by Brian Newbould. Those considerations and the fact that Virgin now offer the album at a budget price make it something worth looking into.

Schubert never saw the Symphony No. 5 (1816) played in his lifetime, the work not getting a performance until 1846, many years after his death. It's odd mainly because the Symphony No. 5 is one of the composer's most-delicate and delightful creations. With Mackerras's direction the opening Allegro floats lightly along, followed by a cultured if somewhat regimented Andante, a most-refined Minuetto, and a very lively if slightly matter-of-fact finale. OK, this is not quite in Sir Thomas Beecham's league, who with his  EMI stereo recording practically owns the rights to this music, but Mackerras is charming enough in his own right.

Purists beware: The version of Schubert's "Unfinished" Eighth Symphony (begun in 1822) Mackerras chose to record is one completed by composer, conductor, lecturer, pianist, critic, and Schubert scholar Brian Newbould. It uses a reconstructed third movement and the Entr'acte Music No. 1 from Schubert's Rosamunde for the concluding Allegro.

Does it work? Well, under Mackerras's baton the music is gracefully fluid and flowing, with the added material not seeming entirely out of place in the scheme of things. However, I don't really see the necessity of it except as a novelty. The completion is, after all, mere guesswork on Newbould's part. Besides, no matter how much Mackerras tries to make it all hang together, the final two movements just don't seem like real Schubert to me, even if the composer did write much of it himself. Maybe it's just a matter of expectations and what one has become used to, I don't know. It never feels right.

What does feel right, though, is Schubert's Ballet Music No. 2 from Rosamunde, which wraps up the program. Mackerras executes precisely the right touch in bringing out the music's inherently bucolic bounce and rhythm.

Released in 1992, just a few years after Mackerras's success with Schubert's Symphony No. 9 with the same orchestra and now reissued on this budget disc in 2010, the recording is at once warm, smooth, and mildly resonant, without these qualities hampering too much the music's inner detail or midrange clarity. You get none of the hard or edgy qualities sometimes associated with recordings of period-instruments ensembles. While it is not sparkling audiophile sound in terms of dynamic range, impact, or extended bass or treble, it is pleasant and easy on the ear, with a fine stage depth.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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