Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7 “Unfinished” (SACD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone PTC 5186 446.

First, let’s clear up the title. The Symphony No. 7 by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) as recorded here is the same “Unfinished Symphony” that most of us know as No. 8. You’d think that by now people would have settled the debate over the numbering of Schubert’s final symphonies, yet occasionally folks still number as the Seventh what the rest of us refer to as the Eighth; I suppose it’s because of some confusion with another of his unfinished symphonies, sometimes also referred to as the Seventh. Nevertheless, I think it’s counterproductive for some conductors and some record companies intentionally to confound the issue, in this case Maestro Philippe Herreweghe and PentaTone Classics possibly confusing their own buying public. It doesn’t help, either, that the PentaTone graphics department provided such busy, unhelpful art work for the cover. Oh, well, it would probably make no difference to Schubert, since as with the rest of his orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway.

Now, to the more important subject: the performances. This disc is, I believe, the second for Herreweghe in what appears to be a complete Schubert symphony cycle. While his earlier disc of the Ninth Symphony was perhaps not a Ninth for the ages, Herreweghe certainly offered for the most part a well-considered, well-produced interpretation.

Understand, Herreweghe may not one of those conductors who immediately pops to mind as among the absolute greatest conductors of our day, yet he never disappoints with his recorded performances. While he’s neither foursquare nor revolutionary, he never takes an easy route, either, as this Schubert recording and his previous one demonstrate.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 6 in C, D.589 (1818), nicknamed “The Little C major” to differentiate it from the Symphony No. 9, which is also in C major and nicknamed “The Great.”  Under Herreweghe, the slow introduction to the first movement sets the scene becomingly, leading into a sprightly Allegro. This is cheerful music, and Herreweghe does his best to keep it that way, even if the PentaTone sonics are perhaps a bit overwhelming for the occasion. Be that as it may, the performance, sounding only a little heavy, remains charming. If it doesn’t quite bring with it all the delight of Sir Thomas Beecham’s early stereo rendering (EMI), it isn’t entirely for lack of trying.

The second-movement Andante is something of an oddity, beginning with a beautifully light melody that suddenly and unexpectedly gets interrupted by some big, dramatic outbursts. Yes, it can be unsettling, but Herreweghe handles the transitions smoothly enough that at least this segment appears almost of a piece.

Herreweghe treats the Scherzo, also somewhat contradictory, in a wholly unified manner as well, the opposing forces jelling comfortably.

Then, there’s the finale, which Schubert never seemed to know when to end. Herreweghe’s solution is to play it relatively fast and move it along quickly to an end. It works reasonably well by its appropriately matching the sprightliness of the opening movement.

Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 7 (8) in B minor, D.759, “Unfinished,” around 1822. What Schubert left unfinished in two movements seems to us today perfectly complete, and Herreweghe for the most part has the measure of it. That starkly grim beginning that appears to promise something ominous or oppressive soon blossoms into the lovely flowing melodies we all love, alternating darkness and light. Again Herreweghe moves from one mood to another with an easy, confident command of transitions, at a somewhat slow but steady, persuasive pace.

In the second and final movement, Schubert surprises us by starting on a light, pastoral note and then turning it darker, the opposite of what he did previously. But this doesn’t confound Herreweghe, who takes it a brisk yet comfortable gait.

PentaTone is one of the few companies left recording in the hybrid stereo-multichannel SACD format. In the high-def SACD two-channel layer to which I listened, we find sound that is warmly dynamic. The SACD transient quality is fleet and its punch is impressive, the overall sonic character slightly cleaner and tighter than in the regular stereo mode (which one can play on any standard CD player), with a touch more air.

Recorded in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, in 2011, the sound in both regular and SACD stereo picks up the acoustic nicely, offering a pleasant room resonance, which adds to the overall realism. As I mentioned earlier, although the sound is a tad heavy for the little Sixth Symphony, it works well for the “Unfinished,” contributing a reassuring richness to the proceedings.


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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 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.

Mission Statement

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