Editor’s Choice – Orchestral, October 2015

When I spoke to Nikolaus Harnoncourt about his new Schubert set for Limelight’s August issue, one thing was made clear from the get-go: the prevailing wisdom that the truly superlative Schubert symphonies are the Unfinished and the Great needs to be questioned. “Already his own style is in place from the first movement of the First Symphony,” Harnoncourt told me. And the conducting bears out those bold sentiments.

Harnoncourt’s idea of a ‘Schubert style’ runs contrary to deeply held ‘certainties’, while remaining stubbornly rooted in the notes. The First Symphony is revealed as the work of an enfant terrible, a cocky young composer fully-versed in the lessons of Beethoven; stinging dissonances disrupt what might otherwise be smooth harmonic pathways. That opening movement is taken at a high-velocity tempo, Harnoncourt daring momentum to buckle when the harmony is at its most disobedient.

And having comprehensively demolished the misnomer that his earliest symphonies might be pallid re-makes of Mozart and Haydn, Harnoncourt aims to change hearts and minds about Schubert’s middle and late-period symphonies. His earlier cycle, recorded in 1992 with the Concertgebouw, balances out intriguingly between the peppery soul of the Romantic spirit tempered by the cornflour of Classical clarity. Now Romanticism prevails, but never in a lame, schooled way. 

Tread carefully as you listen to Harnoncourt’s Fourth Symphony. It may well go off in your face. Schubert’s minefield of chromatic possibilities, embedded into the first movement, spill over the orchestral frame in the Scherzo, which Harnoncourt stuffs with exhilarating mania. His view of the Unfinished as a slow, brooding structure nudges it towards Bruckner – a world away from the porcelain miniature others would have you believe. And the Great C Major is music of rupture; Romanticism at the point of disintegration.

Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings have become renowned for their luxury packaging, and although the linen weave of earlier instalments have now been replaced by glossy card, the box remains a beautiful and elegant object. And no commercial label would have had the guts to box up a complete cycle of Schubert symphonies with dramatically pungent performances of the two late Masses; then sling in a rarely heard opera too – a deeply finessed performance of Alfonso und Estrella that effortlessly expresses the playfulness and inner-fantasy world of Schubert’s creation.


Related…

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Artist of the Authentic
We talk to the apostle of authenticity about his life and his Schubert recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic

Authentic Harnoncourt
The four must-have albums of Nikolaus Harnoncourt

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