Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished)

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Schubert
LABELS: Profil
WORKS: Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished); Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90
PERFORMER: Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis

From the sound of these two performances one might guess that a great deal of loving attention has been lavished on the music. Yet the results are so different. The Schubert is beautiful: warm intensity of tone, long phrases that feel elegant and acutely sensitive, at the same time, pathos, grandeur, romantic atmosphere, and underneath all that a feeling of steady, unpressured momentum carrying the music to its conclusion. This is one of those interpretations that leaves you feeling that the coda of the slow movement just has to be the end. All it lacks is the nervous intensity of the classic Carlos Kleiber – still leading the field after 30 years.
Impressions of the Brahms however are much more mixed. The orchestral sound is gorgeous; what may sound at first like a dangerous thick-pile luxuriousness actually admits a surprising amount of variety and textural transparency. It can be rather languid though – pulse in the third movement begins to flag some time before we get to the middle section. The careful articulation that pays off so well in the Schubert adds weight here: the chorale-like wind writing at the end of the finale drags its feet. Brahms’s marking is only ‘a little sustained’ – surely there should be at least a memory of the previous Allegro? Going back to John Eliot Gardiner after this I expected to miss something of Davis’s lush tenderness, and yet the Gardiner is alive on so many levels, and so convincing on its own terms, that in the end the overwhelming feeling was one of uplift. Beautiful as it is, the Davis falls some way short of that. Stephen Johnson