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.



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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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