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.

JJP

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa