Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Michael Halasz, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Failoni Orchestra. Naxos 8.572939.

There was a time in the old vinyl era when record companies would barely fit Schubert’s Ninth Symphony on a single LP. Now, it’s commonplace to find not only the Ninth but an accompanying Schubert symphony on the same disc, in the case of this Naxos reissue, the Unfinished Symphony. Admittedly, the companion piece is only two movements long, but that’s not the point. It’s just an amazing world we take for granted these days.

Anyway, Hungarian conductor Michael Halasz gets the album started with the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 “Unfinished,” which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) began writing around 1822 but never finished before moving along to other things. Halasz leads the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in a sympathetic performance.

I especially liked what Maestro Halasz does with the opening of the Eighth, beginning with a more than usually dark opening and moving on to a sweetly casual lilt, turning as it should into alternately light and heavy sections. Halasz maintains an exceptionally airy tone in the more lyrical passages, particularly in the second-movement Andante, that is most pleasant.

The history of Schubert’s last numbered symphony, the Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, the “Great,” is somewhat odd because while the composer dated it 1828, the year of his death, he probably didn’t actually write it in 1828. In fact, it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than 1828, maybe 1826, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert’s orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The public didn’t hear the Ninth until 1839, eleven years after the composer died. Anymore, audiences consider it one of the staples of the classical music world.

Here, Maestro Halasz leads the Failoni Chamber Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera in a reading that impressed me less than his Eighth. With a relatively small group, around a third the size of the Slovak Philharmonic, Halasz exhibits less power than I would have liked in this work and less dynamic punch. I can understand using a small period-instruments band for historical reasons and perhaps a small ensemble for greater transparency, but the Ninth is a big work that usually benefits from a bigger orchestra. With the Failoni Orchestra it sounds rather lightweight.

Halasz’s leisurely pace doesn’t do a lot to drum up much enthusiasm, either. Instead, the piece just seems to drift aimlessly along, without much spirit. Even the conductor’s sudden tempo shifts do little to generate much excitement. A steady but rigid Andante march and a fleet-footed but cheerless Scherzo hardly help the situation. The fact is, the whole performance appears more than a tad bland. Fortunately, it ends in a reasonably joyful Finale, although it’s probably a matter of too little too late.

Naxos recorded the Symphony No. 8 at the Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, in 1988 and the Symphony No. 9 at the Italian Institute in Budapest in 1994. The company initially released the two recordings separately, with different couplings, and then together in this 2012 rerelease. In the Eighth, we hear very good sonics with more than adequate body and size. Dynamics are fine, too, and the midrange sounds warm and smooth. While the stereo spread seems slightly constricted, there is a realistic sense of depth involved. In the Ninth the smaller orchestra does, indeed, afford a greater clarity throughout, although the hall imparts a bit too much reflective resonance, nullifying some of the benefits of the smaller ensemble. I preferred the more natural acoustic of the Eighth to the inordinately reverberant setting of the Ninth. Still, both recordings make for comfortable, easy, if somewhat dull, listening.

Here’s the thing, though: Unless you’re a dedicated collector of everything ever recorded or just a die-hard Schubert fan, you may find better recordings of the Eighth from Otto Klemperer (EMI), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Eugen Jochum (DG), Charles Munch (RCA), or Charles Mackerras (Virgin) and of the Ninth from Josef Krips (Decca/HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Charles Mackerras again (Virgin or Telarc), Georg Solti (Decca), George Szell (Sony), or Gunther Wand (RCA).

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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