Schubert composed his 9th Symphony after hearing Beethoven’s symphony number 9 in 1824, however it was not performed in his lifetime. Mendelssohn premiered the symphony in 1839, but its reception never took off, and this work remained relatively unheard. However, we have chosen the four best recordings of this great work.
The best recording of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9
Günter Wand (conductor)
Berlin Philharmonic (1995)
No recordings hold the attention so consistently as Günter Wand’s mesmeric live 1995 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a dream partnership, the 81-year-old conductor inspiring the Berliners to sustain total concentration and dramatic intensity throughout such a lengthy work. No less important is his capacity to bring freshness and new insights to music that can easily be taken for granted.
Everything here sounds three-dimensional – weighty in tone at the most impassioned climaxes, wonderfully warm and lyrical in the reflective moments, miraculously light and feathery at the quiet return of the opening idea in the first movement Allegro, and fearsomely dynamic in the Finale.
This recording may be over 20 years old, but RCA’s engineers have managed to capture the excitement of a concert performance with a full-bodied sound that covers an enormous dynamic range. After the exhilarating impact of the closing bars, it is hardly surprising that the audience roars its approval at the outstanding achievement of conductor and orchestra.
Three more great recordings of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Orchestra Mozart (2011)
DG 479 4652
Claudio Abbado’s last recording of a piece that was close to his heart is a life-enhancing experience. Working with his Orchestra Mozart, he presents the score with all the repeats fully observed, making this truly a symphony of ‘heavenly lengths’ (as Schumann described it). But repetition in this case is not a mechanical process, for Abbado draws attention to different aspects of the material second time round.
Indeed, the focus on inner detail is remarkable. A good example is the beautifully phrased slow introduction whose subtlety of projection and variety of instrumental colouring brings it close to the realms of chamber music. Abbado does not flinch from exploring the music’s darker undercurrents in this vivid live recording, but an overwhelming message of optimism comes through in the invigorating closing bars.
Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor)
Berlin Philharmonic (1952)
DG 427 4052
It is remarkable that a recording made over 60 years ago still has so much to say to us today, but Wilhelm Furtwängler’s early 1950s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic holds a hallowed status among all the interpretations. Working on the basis that the symphony stands at the cusp of Romanticism, Furtwängler makes the stylistic links to Bruckner especially tangible in the funereal tread of the slow movement and the bucolic power of the Scherzo. Inspired by Schumann’s claim that the symphony explores unprecedented regions of experience, he creates some magical moments of repose, such as halfway through the slow movement where mysterious strings are placed against a repeated pedal note on the horn.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1992)
Before recording a cycle of the Schubert symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the early 1990s, Nikolaus Harnoncourt undertook a study of the manuscripts, seeking to amend performance instructions that had crept into the score over two centuries. In lesser hands, such an exercise would appear stultifying. But Harnoncourt was too instinctive a musician to allow dogma to get in the way of creative interpretation.
The most striking aspect of this performance is his insistence on the lightest possible articulation which enables the wind and brass to cut through the texture in fully scored passages to thrilling effect. Adopting tempos that are swift yet fluid, he gives an account that achieves an ideal balance between the Romantic and Classical features of Schubert’s work.
And one to avoid…
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
In his 1986 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim tries to emulate Furtwängler by adopting a monumental Brucknerian approach to the score. Unfortunately, he does not display the innate understanding of structure that makes the other so compelling, and the slow tempos in the first three movements sound ponderous. Although the orchestra is woken up in a furious Finale, your patience may have worn thin by this stage.