Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "The Great" (CD review)

Sir Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  Virgin Classics Veritas VC 7 90708-2.

Who says period-instruments bands have to play at frantic speeds or sound edgy and hard? The way the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play and the way Virgin record them, they sound positively mellow.

This 1987 recording has been around now for quite some time, but I was reminded of it after listening again to Josef Krips's classic Decca recording from almost thirty years earlier. The Krips reading of the Schubert Ninth uses a full modern orchestra, while Sir Charles Mackerras uses a slightly smaller period-instruments group, so the two performances aren't really comparable. They're more complementary.

Moreover, Mackerras not only uses a smaller body of performers (though still substantial at about sixty performers) playing on authentic period instruments, he also observes all the repeats and mainly follows the autograph manuscript score. As Mackerras notes in the disc's accompanying booklet, Schubert marks the tempo in the very opening of the work differently than most conductors play it, so with Mackerras the Andante introduction flows more easily into the following Allegro. Mackerras follows this up by observing that Schubert wanted most of the movements paced a bit slower than we usually hear them, resulting in a greater continuity throughout the entire piece than we normally hear. It's true that under Mackerras there is also a certain degree of sameness about the symphony; yet, if anything, it serves to bring out the work's lyrical qualities more than ever, and it helps to dispel the notion that Schubert was making something of a mishmash with the symphony.

In this latter regard, it's also of interest that for years during and after Beethoven's lifetime, hardly anybody produced a major symphony; composers must have figured Beethoven had already done it better than anybody else, so why bother. (It would be a few years, even some decades, before Mendelssohn's and Schumann's symphonies appeared.) Schubert finished his Ninth in 1827, a year or two before his premature death in his early thirties, and he never heard it performed publicly. He wrote his earlier works mostly when he was in his teens, and people didn't take them too seriously. Then he left his Eighth unfinished. So, while we take Schubert's symphonies for granted today as major parts of the basic repertoire, almost nobody, including the composer, heard most of them in the composer's lifetime.

Anyway, remember that word "mellow" I mentioned earlier? It really does describe the sound of this recording pretty well.  Yes, the violins produce their customary "period" sounds, and, no, they don't sound as smooth as modern violins would. But they don't grate on the ears the way some period instruments do, either. We also get a fine stereo spread and a reasonable sense of depth to the orchestra.  All around, it's an enjoyable listening experience.

Now, is Mackerras at the top of the recommended list of Ninths? Well, it's close. While it doesn't convey the airy cheerfulness of Krips (Decca), the Olympic grandeur or Szell (Sony), or the magisterial authority of Klemperer (EMI) or Wand (EMI), it does have authenticity on its side, something closer to what the composer had in mind than the others, and it's definitely among the more radiant performances around.

(Incidentally, the cover art pictured is for the edition I own, which may no longer be available. I've noticed different cover art on the newer rerelease.)



  1. Interesting review.

    You may be aware, but Mackerras has recorded the great C major three times. For some reason this OAE account is the one that always seems to crop up, though for my money it's the weakest (but that may just be my preference for modern instruments). In 2006 he taped it in a live concert with the Philharmonia (on their own label). Best of all, however, is a stunning recording on Telarc with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom Mackerras has a particularly fruitful relationship, coupled with an equally fine unfinished. If you don't know it, it's well worth checking out.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Tam. It isn't that I forgot Mackerras had recorded the work several times; it's just that I like this Virgin interpretation best. You might try the back issues of "$ensible Sound" magazine for my review of the Telarc, a recording I also like but find a bit more rushed in the central section. Besides, I have a penchant for period-instruments performances when they are as comfortably recorded as here.



John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa