Schubert Symphonies Nos 1–9
Marc Minkowski takes a surprisingly conventional view of these pieces, though his performances, recorded ‘live’ in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, are none the worse for that – indeed, I enjoyed them immensely. Most of Schubert’s early Symphonies were intended for performance by the orchestra at the Stadtkonvikt (town seminary) where he went to school, and he seems to have revelled in the music’s sheer noise factor. Minkowski uses an appropriately large orchestra, augmenting it further for the Great C major, but scaling it back in the more transparently scored Symphony No. 5.
The D major Symphony No. 1, composed at the tender age of 16, has a rumbustious finale in the style of a tarantella and Minkowski takes it at whirlwind speed, producing an altogether exhilarating account. The first movement of the same Symphony poses a problem that resurfaces in the Great C major: the introduction’s material returns during the course of the ensuing Allegro, but rather than revert to the initial tempo Schubert writes the music out in notes of twice their original value, implying that the Allegro should move at double the speed of the Adagio. Minkowski observes the tempo-relationship precisely in the early Symphony, which inevitably necessitates an initial Adagio that’s too fast to reflect the music’s solemnity and weight.In the ‘Great’ C major, however, he accelerates in traditional fashion at the transition between the introduction and the Allegro.
These are, however, impressive performances, greatly aided by the skilful playing of Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble and their admirable first oboe. Particularly fine is the sombre account of the first movement of the Unfinished, but Minkowski’s tempos elsewhere are generally spot on, too, and he seldom fails to respond to the music’s character and spirit. Perhaps his pianissimos aren’t always sufficiently delicate – I’m thinking, for instance, of the tip-toeing theme of the second movement in Symphony No. 3, or the hushed da capo of the scherzo in the Great C major – but it’s a small point. This set can take its place among the very best of Schubert Symphony cycles.