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Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 / Heras-casado, Freiburger Barockorchester

Schubert / Heras-casado
Release Date: 09/10/2013 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902154   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Pablo Heras-Casado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUBERT Symphony Nos. 3 and 4 Pablo Heras-Casado, cond; Freiburg Baroque O HARMONIA MUNDI 902154 (54:33)

There has long been a popular image of the impoverished composer, living in some basement or attic, churning out “music for the future” since his is too “advanced” for the reactionary audiences of his time. No doubt there are and have been such composers throughout history, but the ones that tend to be honored as “immortals” were well known and, in many cases, well off, during their lifetimes. The Read more exception that proves the rule is Franz Schubert, virtually unknown outside of his native Vienna and hardly a celebrity even there despite the appreciation of a small circle of friends. Think of some who shared the Romantic era with him—Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Rossini, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvo?ák—composers who were celebrated during their lifetimes. Even the shy, modest Bruckner could have heard some of his symphonies performed by the Vienna Philharmonic; Schubert never heard a single one of his performed by a professional orchestra and many did not receive such a performance until long after his death. For example, the Symphony No. 3 did not receive its official premiere until 1881 (!). When some of his manuscripts were examined long after his death by the likes of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and George Grove (of encyclopedia fame), they were astounded at what they found. Years later, Dvo?ák, upon perusing Schubert’s scores, wrote “The more I study them, the more I marvel.” By the end of the 19th century, Schubert’s reputation had so soared that his standing in the world of music rivaled that of his fellow “immortals” and still does. To add a personal note, it could be said that Schubert literally changed my life. Taking a “Music Appreciation” class in school, I was exposed to the first four minutes-or-so of the “Unfinished” Symphony. My mother must have been shocked when I asked her to give me a recording of the “Unfinished” Symphony for my 12th birthday. I soon discovered that the rest of the Symphony was pretty good, too and there began my record collection. Although I can no longer play 78s, I still have that Koussevitsky recording with its Frank Decker hourglass cover and it remains a treasured icon. So here I am, reviewing a recording of two Schubert symphonies.

Listening to Schubert’s first six symphonies, delightful things that they are, it is easy to forget that they were composed by a teenager who, though he inevitably used Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as models, couldn’t help but have his own personality peek through. As a youth, Schubert played second violin in the orchestra of the Imperial and Royal City Seminary and occasionally even got to conduct the group, which appears to have consisted of six first violins and second violins, two violas, two cellos, two string basses, two each of the woodwinds, and an unspecified number of horns, trumpets, and drums. He probably composed with an orchestra of approximately this size in mind. Later, he auditioned his early symphonies with an even smaller group at private houses. The point is that he probably never imagined his symphonies being performed by the larger orchestras of the later 19th and 20th centuries. I hasten to add that this does not, ipso facto , rule out having them performed by such groups; it’s less a question of what you do than how you do it.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, while it has a slightly larger body of strings, is comparable in size to the orchestra Schubert conducted at the Seminary. For context, I listened to the Heras-Casado performances along with recordings by Claudio Abbado, Herbert Blomstedt, Nikolas Harnoncourt, István Kertész, Raymond Leopard (No. 3 only), Thomas Beecham (No. 3), Otmar Suitner (No. 3), Carlo Maria Giulini (No. 4), and Neville Marriner (No. 4). The advantages of using a small orchestra and period practices are certainly on display in Heras-Casado’s performances—plentiful detail, crisp rhythms, decisive accents, some scintillating allegro s (they also perform at a slightly lower pitch) but there are also a few warts: in the solemn ( adagio molto ) introductions to the Third and Fourth symphonies, the small body of wheezy, vibrato-less strings simply can’t produce the appropriate gravitas ; in the slow movement of No. 4, the bigger, traditional string bodies produce a warmth that the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra can’t match. Even Abbado’s European Chamber Orchestra (using vibrato) easily outdoes them. There’s also the possibility that using period practices can distance the music from us, giving it more of an antiquarian interest, even making some passages flirt with quaintness. There are even occasional balance problems in Heras-Casado’s performances when his enthusiastic timpanist and brass players briefly drown out the strings. On the other hand, the Allegro vivaces have a darting finesse that can really sizzle—his “watch-my-smoke” tempo in the Finale of No. 3 produces a dashing tarantella that would exhaust anyone fool enough to try to dance to it. I should point out, for what little it may be worth, that, if you own a recording of the Third Symphony during which the conductor repeats the first 16 bars of the second movement (Beecham, Kertész), he’s using a defective edition. Schubert’s manuscript lacks the repeat.

I know I will never manage to hear all the complete Schubert symphony collections—there are simply too many—but if Heras-Casado manages to complete the entire cycle, his would take care of the “musicological” end for me and Blomstedt’s big, warm (but still lively), gorgeously-played Dresden State Orchestra recordings the “traditional” one. Somewhere in between them, getting the best of both worlds, is Abbado and the European Chamber Orchestra, arguably the “safest” of all the complete sets I have managed to hear, at least, most of.

FANFARE: James Miller
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in C minor, D 417 "Tragic" by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Pablo Heras-Casado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1816; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 3 in D major, D 200 by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Pablo Heras-Casado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1815; Vienna, Austria 

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