Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished); Symphony No. 9 (Great)

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Carlton
WORKS: Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished); Symphony No. 9 (Great)
PERFORMER: Budapest SO/Tamás Vásáry
CATALOGUE NO: 30366 01082
Of these two recordings of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, only John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Vienna Philharmonic is a serious contender for benchmark status. On the face of it it’s an unlikely partnership: a restlessly curious and questioning conductor who’s devoted his life to rethinking and reinventing tradition, paired with an orchestra which effortlessly embodies an unbroken tradition, and so has no need to invent one. The results, however, are wonderful, right from that opening horn call, which on the Vienna PO’s luxurious horns has the ideal rich-brown hue. The recording is advertised as live, but you’d never guess from the unblemished silence of the Salzburg Festspielhaus – the audience must have been riveted, and no wonder given this performance, which magically combines Gardinernervy intensity with the Vienna PO’s spacious, glowing gravitas.

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Compare that with the studio recording by the Budapest Symphony, which begins so noisily I wondered whether the cleaning staff were still busy, added to which the sound is truly ghastly. The winds are sour and too close, the strings so distant and indistinct they might be in another room. Lying over the sound is a thick pall of booming bass and timpani. Behind it, I thought I could discern, now and then, a spirited performance, but by the halfway point I was past caring. Gardiner and the Vienna PO are up against two thrilling period-band performances from Norrington and the London Classical Players on EMI, and Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Virgin, not to mention fine modern-instrument versions from James Levine and the Chicago SO and Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, both on DG. But Gardiner’s version (which is paired, uniquely, with Schubert’s wonderful Goethe setting for eight-part choir and strings) gets my vote. Ivan Hewett