Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings
WORKS: Complete symphonies; Masses Nos 5 & 6; Alfonso und Estrella
PERFORMER: Luba Orgoná≥ová, Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Birgit Remmert, Bernarda Fink (mezzo), Kurt Streit, Jonas Kaufmann, Christian Elsner (tenor), Christian Gerhaher, Jochen Schmeckenbecher (baritone), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone); Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/Nikolaus Harnoncourt


Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s declaration that ‘Schubert is the composer who is closest to my heart’ shines through this hugely engrossing boxed set. It’s the most ambitious release so far on the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label, drawing on live performances that took place in the Philharmonie between 2003 and 2006. The sound quality on the CDs is outstandingly vivid, but for hi-fi buffs, there is an added attraction of a Blu-ray disc which offers all the music in uncompressed studio master quality.

Since Harnoncourt has already made outstanding recordings of the symphonies and the Fifth and Sixth Masses for Warner Classics, and there is a DVD of him conducting a staged version of the opera Alfonso und Estrella, a major consideration for prospective buyers of this new set will be to what extent these Berlin performances provide different interpretative insights. As far as the symphonies are concerned, Harnoncourt maintains and even intensifies his quest for textual purity already established in his cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Once again, he goes back to the composer’s autograph manuscripts, repudiating much of the phrasing and alterations in instrumentation that resulted from the 19th-century published scores edited by Brahms. Yet the results are far removed from some kind of rarefied academic exercise, and the performances are given an extra degree of adrenaline through being recorded live. Like their Dutch colleagues, the Berliners provide alert and exceptionally refined playing, proving especially responsive to the Viennese lilt with which Harnoncourt inflects all the dance movements. There are, of course, idiosyncracies with regard to tempo fluctuation in certain movements which might strike some listeners as unnecessarily mannered. But as always, strong musical justifications for Harnoncourt’s interpretative decisions are very much to the fore. The best example is the unusually ponderous speed adopted for the second idea in the Finale of the Sixth Symphony, a deliberate ploy on the part of Harnoncourt to emphasise the composer’s contempt for Rossini-mania that was sweeping Vienna at the time.

Perhaps the most startling departure from the earlier set comes with Harnoncourt’s monumental, almost Brucknerian approach to the first movement of the Unfinished. It’s not just that he adopts a slower tempo than before, but also that articulation and timbre are projected with a much greater degree of harshness, thus making the emotional experience of the music even more overwhelmingly dark. In stark contrast, the Finale of the Great C major moves with exhilarating energy, driving inexorably towards an affirmative close.


Harnoncourt depicts similarly dramatic contrasts between darkness and light in the vivid performance of the Sixth Mass, a particular highlight being the spine-tingling changes of key at the beginning of the Sanctus. The Fifth Mass, on the other hand, seems distinctly earthbound until we get to the Credo where suddenly both soloists and choir seem to become far more engaged. Fortunately, no such issues arise in Alfonso und Estrella. Although maligned for its so-called dramatic shortcomings, this opera boasts attractive melodious numbers and is performed here with unimpeachable conviction by an all-star cast and a brilliantly responsive orchestra. Erik Levi