Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C (Great); Overture in C (In the Italian Style)

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 in C (Great); Overture in C (In the Italian Style)
PERFORMER: San Francisco SO/Herbert Blomstedt
CATALOGUE NO: 436 598-2 DDD
No use hoping to find the same lofty seriousness of purpose in Schubert’s symphonic cycle as in Beethoven’s. Schubert had completed his first six symphonies by the time he was barely 21, and they are full of touching reminiscences of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Four years later came the Unfinished, whose opening Allegro stands as perhaps the finest symphonic movement Schubert ever wrote; but it was only in March 1824 that he declared his intention to pave the way for a grand symphony. That symphony was the life-affirming Great C major – a work which, when played with all its repeats, as on these two recordings, lasts fully an hour.

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The first thing to be said about Riccardo Muti’s cycle, now completed with a new recording of No. 2 (also available on a single disc: CDC 7 54873 2, J497), is that he seems more at home with the mature Schubert than with the comparatively lightweight world of the first six symphonies. His Unfinished is cogent and compelling; and the Great C major is scarcely less impressive, despite the rather portentous slowing down for the return of the introduction’s theme near the close of the first movement.

In the earlier symphonies, however, Muti frequently drives the music too hard. The outer movements of the Tragic (No. 4) sound hectic rather than agitated; and in the parallel movements of No. 6 it is decidedly Rossini who wins out over Haydn. The second movement of No. 3, marked as a gentle two-to-the-bar Allegretto, is again so fast that its charm and elegance are entirely missed. Much better are Nos. 2 and 5; and the inclusion of the Rosamunde overture and ballet music makes a welcome bonus.

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There is a great deal to admire in Herbert Blomstedt’s performance of the Great C major – not least the playing of the San Francisco orchestra, which yields nothing in warmth to the Vienna PO. This is a thoroughly musical account, marred only by a disappointingly matter-of-fact view of the slow introduction. The Italian Overture, D591, provides an enjoyable, if inconsequential, filler. Misha Donat