Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. RCA 88697 87147 2.

Maestro David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich continue their recorded cycle of Schubert symphonies with Nos. 1 and 2, which they released concurrently with No. 7 (8) “Unfinished.” As we would expect from this source, the performances and sound quality are quite good, and the disc makes a welcome addition to the catalogue.

The “however” is one of personal taste: I have never considered Schubert’s first two symphonies as anything particularly extraordinary. The composer wrote them while in his teens, and they lack some of the wit, charm, bounce, bubble, and inventiveness that mark his later symphonies. The major appeals of the present recording may be for collectors wanting some of the best available performances of Nos. 1 and 2 just for the sake of having them, whether they like them or not, and, of course, for those completests wishing to collect Zinman’s entire set. Still, the way Zinman plays the two works, one has a renewed respect for them.

Austrian Franz Schubert (1897-1828) was a prolific composer, writing nearly 1,000 pieces of music in his brief lifetime, primarily songs, yet he failed to publish many if not most of them and failed to gain the attention of the public at large. Given the number of truly great compositions he left us, it seems a shame he didn’t get the credit he deserved while he lived, but such is life. It is sometimes unfair. We live with it and, meanwhile, enjoy the music.

Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82, in 1813, opening it with a grand statement in the Beethoven vein that, nevertheless, doesn’t seem on the face of it very remarkable. However, Zinman does bring out its life, its vitality, maybe its impetuous youthfulness. Moreover, there is an easy flow to the music, the rhythms dancing smoothly under the conductor’s direction. If the first movement is Beethovenian in character, the second is most definitely Mozartian, and Zinman approaches it with a light touch. The Minuetto and finale that follow are more dance-like than the preceding movements, and Zinman is careful to link these qualities to the composer’s later work.

The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D 125, Schubert wrote a year later, 1814, and it is longer and more ambitious than the First. Again, we get a slow introduction, followed by an agitated development section and a repeated theme. Zinman gives it plenty of spark, and the music comes across with an exuberant joy. The Andante finds Schubert playing with a set of variations, the theme again reminiscent of Mozart. Then, in a sudden burst of energy, we get a scherzo-like third-movement Minuetto and then a Presto Vivace in which Zinman with his zesty interpretation finds and delivers great delight.

So, even though I don’t see these symphonies as anything special from Schubert, Zinman almost makes one a believer. There may be more here than I thought.

RCA recorded the music in February and March of 2011 in Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland, to generally good effect. It exhibits fine overall imaging, depth of image, dynamics, and impact. The midrange sounds reasonably transparent, with a more-than-adequate separation of instruments. In all, the sonic image is open, airy, and slightly reverberant, creating a lifelike aural experience.

Heretofore (does anybody in the real world actually say “heretofore”? I dunno, but I like it). Heretofore, my favorite recording of these works was by Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG). And before that in the long ago, it was an ancient LP by Sir Thomas Beecham, mono and not very good sounding but still probably a benchmark in the works (although I don’t have it any longer to compare). After hearing Zinman, though, I think his reading is marginally sunnier, cheerier, and more penetrating than Abbado’s and RCA’s sound a touch cleaner. While it’s close, I’d say Zinman is now the man of the hour. I even like RCA’s artwork for the package.

If the RCA disc has any minor drawback, it’s the same as Zinman’s disc of the Seventh “Unfinished”:  It’s rather short on content. The two symphonies take up well under an hour of playing time. As I
say, a minor concern.


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Meet the Staff

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 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.
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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa