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Franz Schubert
Symphonies No. 3 in D major, D.200, No. 4 in C minor, D.417 "Tragic"
Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Baroque Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

  It is oddly appropriate that the cover shows conductor Heras-Casado sailing through the air as if he'd just been shot from a cannon, for this entire production seems more like a circus act than anything else. For once my complaint has nothing to do with the size of the orchestra; in this case, a very small ensemble consisting of 41 players. In past reviews, I've expressed a historically un-informed preference for hearing early Schubert symphonies played on modern instruments by a full-sized orchestra. But the sad truth is that no Schubert symphony was performed in the composer's lifetime; and when, beginning in 1849, they were performed, we can only guess at the size of the forces involved. Besides, I have to admit that some conductors have made heavy weather of these works. If asked to choose between Lorin Maazel's turgid, sluggish performances with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Marc Minkowsi's exquisite performances with the chamber-sized Musicians du Louvre, I would unhesitatingly choose the latter.

But the problem here has nothing to do with the size of the orchestra. The problem here has to do with tempo. These performances are just too fast, and I'm not talking Toscanini-fast. I'm talking Toscanini on amphetamines having smoked some crack and downed one too many double espressos fast. In the Third Symphony this sacrifices the work's considerable virtues (a genial charm, a bright youthful buoyancy) to speed alone. Schubert himself designated his Fourth Symphony as "Tragic," but conductors have always seemed divided on the question of whether or not to take the composer at his word. Some simply play the work as another adolescent exercise in pure exuberance (Fey, Immerseel, Minkowski), while others dress it in the dark shadings suggested by the title (Giulini, Beinum, Kertez). Heras-Casado falls into the latter camp, but he's still too hasty in the outer movements, and elsewhere lurches heedlessly, gracelessly from one subject to the next. I'm supposing he's trying to communicate a sense of desperation here. But it seems to me the only ones who have sufficient cause to be desperate are the members of the Freiburger orchestra who have to meet Heras-Casado's excessive demands. But here's the amazing thing. The FBO manages these terrifying speeds with a precision, an elegance that almost justifies the performances. The demonstration-quality sound registers every discomforting moment with a startling depth and clarity. If you're looking for Schubert symphonies played on a chamber-sized orchestra, you could do worse than the aforementioned Minkowski. For individual performances, I'd recommend Carlos Kleiber's Third and Carlo-Maria Giulini's Fourth (both paired with sensitive but very different versions of the "Unfinished"). As for this release, I'd avoid it at all costs.

 

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