Review By Max Westler
CD Number: Tudor 7141
The same team responsible for the impressive Mahler Fifth I discussed last month now returns with the first installment in a projected cycle of the complete Schubert symphonies. As with the Mahler, Jonathan Nott's honesty and intelligence lets us hear this familiar music in a different way, which is probably why this recording has drawn such hostile fire from establishment critics. The complaint lodged against the performances of the very early First and Third Symphonies is that they lack the charm and geniality of the classic versions by Sir. Thomas Beecham. While it's true that charm was Beecham's strong suit — the old boy could have charmed the spots off a leopard — it is also true that sometimes his early Schubert seems self-consciously arch, and (especially in his approach to the scherzos) too heavyset and slow-moving. In contrast, these performances are consistently faster, at once more sprightly and bristling. Nott emphasizes the youthfulness of the invention here, its boisterous and sometimes brawling impetuosity. Though exciting, Nott doesn't overplay his hand and make the music sound too tense or serious (as Igor Markevitch certainly does in his thrilling and wrongheaded version with the Berlin Philharmonic, recently reissued on DG). In the end, I prefer Nott's directness and high spirits to Beecham's showmanship and wit.
The "Unfinished" is more provocative. Several critics seem to have dismissed this performance solely on the basis of its unusually slow tempos and dark, heavy textures. It's true that Nott doesn't serve up this score in the Viennese manner (mit lots of schlag), nor does he indulge its burnished, "hurts so good" melancholy. For Nott, the "Unfinished" is a tragic work: Schubert's dark night of the soul. Grave and stunned, this performance of it brings to mind the Emily Dickinson poem that begins, "There is a pain — so utter — / It swallows substance up/ — Then covers the Abyss with Trance...." In many (including some very well known) versions of this symphony, the first movement is not sharply differentiated from the second. Here the somber, stricken mood of the allegro gives way to a restless and anguished andante that achieves a sense of resolution, if not solace, in the closing pages. Though this doesn't displace any of my favorite versions (Kleiber, Giulini, the late Walter, and Furtwangler), it certainly complements them by letting me hear something in this music that no one else does.
The playing of the underrated Bamberg Symphony is just as impressive as in the Mahler Fifth, and the sound just as transparent and realistic. In this case, those who defy the nay-sayers will be well rewarded.