Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (CD review)

Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902154.

Is there really any other composer whose music is so thoroughly and consistently charming as that of Franz Schubert (1797-1828)? Certainly Mozart and Beethoven come close, yet even they had a few hits and misses. But Schubert? Everything he wrote is a delight, even the two early symphonies on this disc, Nos. 3 and 4, written when the composer was still in his teens.

However, you wouldn’t always know how charming the music was if your only exposure to it was this period-instruments recording from the young Spanish conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado. Judging by the heady speeds and extreme dynamic contrasts he adopts from time to time throughout the performances, he seems to be trying to outdo Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel for outright energy and excitement. The thing is, Dudamel knows when to reign things in and apply a little more subtlety and nuance. Heras-Casado seems to go full bore every minute. You can even get an indication of this energy by looking at the album’s cover picture, where the conductor appears to be leaping into the air. (Either that or he’s lying down with his arms spread out; I prefer to think he was leaping.)

Anyway, things begin with the Symphony No. 3 in D major, D.200, which Schubert wrote in 1815, just a few months after his eighteenth birthday. As with all of his other symphonies, the composer never published the work in his lifetime.

From the outset, Heras-Casado throws himself headlong into the music, making the most of every dynamic contrast he can find. Thus, for example, in the opening Adagio section of the first movement, we get huge crescendos of sound; and then in the following Allegro con brio segment, we get an exhilarating tempo on top of the loud outbursts. It makes for an exciting interpretation, to be sure, but I'm not sure it's what every listener might want to hear in their Schubert.

I made two quick comparisons in the Symphony No. 3, the first to another period-instruments group, the Hanover Band conducted by Roy Goodman and the second to a modern-instruments ensemble, the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In the case of Goodman, the playing is almost as heady, yet Goodman maintains a better balance of enthusiasm and musicality. In the case of Beecham, well, there just isn't any comparison. Beecham keeps the music floating along with such airy joy, it's really unfair to compare his presentation to that of Heras-Casado.

In the little Allegretto, Heras-Casado seems more in tune with the spirit of Schubert, still a bit zippy yet well controlled, with a sweet, bouncy rhythm. Then it's back to the races in the two final movements, which, in fairness, Schubert does mark Vivace, but still....

The other selection on the program is the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D.417, “Tragic,” which Schubert wrote in 1816, about a year after he completed the Third. Schubert added the subtitle “Tragic” a few years later, probably because it is darker and more serious than his previous symphonies.

The "Tragic" element in Schubert's Fourth Symphony has always been in question, though, since after its somber introduction, it does tend to get rather lighter in mood as it goes along. While Heras-Casado exaggerates this condition just enough to give us the idea, he promotes the heavier aspects of the score as well. So, for instance, the second-movement Andante is both ethereal and pensive, tough and determined. The Minuet is really a scherzo, and the final Allegro is nervous and aggressive. Overall, Heras-Casado seems better attuned to the complexities of the Fourth than to the simpler allures of the Third.

Completing the package, we get a light-cardboard slipcover, which unfortunately merely repeats the picture of Maestro Heras-Casado leaping for all he’s worth. It’s not an attractive picture and does nothing to enhance the album, so aside from promoting the conductor, I’m not sure what the purpose of the picture might be.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2012 at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla, Granada, Spain, where they obtained a very spacious and lively sound. However, the hall resonance can occasionally obscure midrange detail, and the very reverberation that might otherwise make a recording seem quite full here tends to make the strings sound a little bright and thin. That said, the clarity is still fairly good, the stereo spread wide, and the dynamics ample, although with, as I mentioned earlier, an impact that can sometimes spoil the elegance of the music.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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