Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished); Symphony No. 9 in C (Great)

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LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished); Symphony No. 9 in C (Great)
PERFORMER: Scottish CO/Charles Mackerras
In Schubert, as in their much admired recordings of Mozart and Brahms, Mackerras and the Scottish CO opt for natural horns, trumpets and trombones and a small string section, and the resulting clarity of texture is irresistible. Even with all its repeats, the Great C major Symphony’s ‘heavenly lengths’ seem not a moment too long. Mackerras’s speeds are alert rather than brisk; he maintains the tension in the long outer movements by scrupulous attention to dynamic contrasts, and the purposeful articulation of the Scottish CO’s fine woodwind players, in particular, contributes to a sense of new discovery on each return of the main themes. The Scherzo also benefits from being lighter on its feet than most orchestras can manage. In the equally sensitive account of the Unfinished Symphony there are comparable advantages to the Mackerras approach, with the natural brass providing great power in the work’s short-lived moments of anger. Gardiner’s recent Schubert No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG) is also highly recommendable, another fruitful meeting of different stylistic traditions. His Salzburg acoustics are more resonant, while the coupling is less generous, but more unusual – an atmospheric Goethe setting sung by the Monteverdi Choir. Hans Vonk’s more traditional Schubert sounds rather heavy and unimaginative after all this, though much of what he does is very musical and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra plays well for him in clear sound. The main interest of this new recording on a new label, though, lies in the fact that it is produced and distributed (mail order and via the orchestra’s website) by the SLSO itself, an original and brave initiative which other orchestras in America (and elsewhere) will no doubt follow with interest. Stephen Maddock