Notes and Editorial Reviews
Spirited accounts which revel in the liberal zeal of Schubert’s youth.
Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2
David Zinman, cond; Zurich Tonhalle O
RCA 88697 871472 (58:38)
David Zinman appears to be the last conductor out there with a decent recording contract, with high-profile cycles of Beethoven, Strauss, Schumann, and, perhaps less convincingly, Mahler under his
belt. Despite having been highly respected for a long time, his name was made relatively late, after he took over the Tonhalle Zurich, in particular with a Beethoven cycle. While it wasn’t the first period-sounding cycle it was one of the most consistent and, being on Arte Nova, one of the cheapest. Now with the beginning of a complete Schubert cycle, Zinman will maybe finally succeed where even the great names like Abbado, Karajan, and Barenboim have failed, and persuade audiences that Schubert was as great a symphonist as Beethoven.
Even I have a blind spot when it comes to Schubert’s bigger orchestral works, especially the Ninth, but his first two symphonies, both written in his teens, as presented here in semi-period performances are models of charm, melody, and classical logic. The influences of Mozart and Haydn are naturally unavoidable, and just like with Beethoven’s early symphonic work, there is experimenting with long development passages and weightier instrumentation, although Zinman’s transparent textures ensure that Schubert’s precocious writing comes through cleanly. These are performances with not only real bite and energy, but warmth and humor. The Second Symphony’s Andante, for instance, has a real smile in the playing, as well as a rustic feel in the central development section. Anyone expecting these Haydn-influenced student works to sound a bit twee need only go to the furiously played finale to the Second Symphony to see how the later Schubert’s darker, harmonically complex mood is already apparent. Even in the difference of just a year, Schubert has progressed as a composer, as by contrast his First Symphony is more in awe of the great masters of before. Still, there’s nothing wrong with sounding like Mozart, especially in a bracing performance like this, with its delightful dancing rhythms and playoffs between the woodwinds and violins.
Throughout the tempi are quick, articulation is super-clean, and I love how Zinman achieves this period sound without loss of weight or lyricism in the textures. The biting woodwinds and vibrant brass are a delight, but throughout there’s a silkiness to the string playing and general warmth that not even the most avid period-movement hater could object to. Competition is pretty scarce for these Cinderella symphonies, and they tend to be done rather dutifully only as part of a whole symphony cycle. For those put off by period instruments, there’s Böhm’s big-boned but surprisingly energetic accounts, and Abbado’s warm, refined view, both on DG, but for the love of God, stay away from Karajan’s dismal, funereal run-through on EMI, clearly a contractual obligation rather than musical exploration. By contrast, Zinman’s love and care for these works shines through with an infectious energy. I haven’t heard the Barenboim or Harnoncourt cycles, but for me Zinman is the resounding first choice, and makes me eager to get hold of future volumes. It’s a shame Zinman has been promoted from the budget wing, Arte Nova, but this is still worth the extra outlay. RCA’s sound is bright, detailed, and well defined, and the notes are good. A winner.
FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
It’s a logical but also brave move to begin a Schubert symphony cycle with numbers 1 and 2; these are the least often played and recorded. Even so, they are enjoyable works and deserve more airing than they get. That’s particularly so when performed as well as they are here.
David Zinman grabs
Symphony 1 by the scruff of the neck, making a festive jamboree of its
Adagio first movement introduction. The recording I shall use for comparison was made in 1987 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 4778689). It has an introduction of more traditional grandeur and bombast but I prefer Zinman’s faster one. It’s maybe not exactly a true
Adagio and takes 0:52 against Abbado’s 1:08. It fits in better with the following
Allegro and also makes for a smoother transition to the introduction’s return at the end of the development where Abbado in comparison sounds decidedly ponderous. With the firm accents and spirited playing Zinman brings, the main body
Allegro teems with youthful enthusiasm and animation. The movement’s almost continuous red-blooded thrust is nevertheless relieved from time to time. You can hear this at the relaxed, dancing opening of the second theme (tr. 1 1:45) before it becomes more heroic and then in turn reflective in nature. It’s a theme of surprisingly symphonic quality which is the natural focus of the development. To this latter Abbado brings a more epic deliberation. With Abbado you experience the symphony as a structure. With Zinman you feel more that it’s a journey and a pleasantly extended one at that; unlike Abbado, he repeats the exposition.
The ‘slow’ movement is marked
Andante and Zinman doesn’t linger a jot. The pleasing flow he gets thereby conveys emotion, generally of the gently smouldering kind. There’s tension too and he avoids any suggestion of sentimentality. But I wonder, is it just a little too smoothed along? The rare darker section in E minor (tr. 2 0:56) is stinging enough but passes quickly, almost inconsequentially. It’s all beautifully done, woodwind particularly yet it’s eased forward a touch overmuch. This can be heard at 5:33 and is confirmed by Abbado’s 7:38 of greater breathing space. Every detail, such as the hushed final entry of the theme, is lovingly observed.
The Minuet has terrific cheery bounce and pace. Zinman sweeps it along full of confidence. You could believe this is a Schubert take on a Beethoven scherzo. Zinman brings out the jocularity of the six-quaver clusters, a tricky figuration which the Tonhalle woodwind manage with barely scope for comfort at its close. It’s worth it for the lovely contrast of a benign Trio which is, as you’d expect, sunnier and more relaxed. Zinman gives good attention to the wistful sigh in the first violins as the melody expands with the Minuet’s jocular motif hovering in the background. Abbado is a touch more laid-back in the Minuet. He offers a little more light and shade but his Trio is less of a contrast.
Zinman’s finale is a true
Allegro vivace: first violins’ light opening, then ultimate zip from full orchestra. The second theme (1:14), however, offers a little breathing space. It recalls the easygoing time of the Trio - though not for long. This really is a virtuoso performance by the Tonhalle Orchestra. Just listen to the head of steam Zinman achieves from 1:38 at the end of the exposition. I particularly enjoyed the first violins screeching like banshees from 4:54 in the coda. Abbado brings out the structure of Schubert’s argument cleanly and precisely but lacks Zinman’s propulsive energy and excitement.
Symphony 2 is more carefree, less symphonic than its predecessor. The first movement introduction has a gentler
tutti bounce and sunnier strings’ reflection. The delicate violins’ figurations is pointed up by florid twirls from the first flute. This is a sign that Schubert’s interest here is as much in variation of texture as melody. The first theme of the
Allegro simply sets a
perpetuum mobile in gear and Zinman obtains light running quavers in the strings. The second theme (tr. 5 2:00) is slighter than in Symphony 1 but sweeter. It grows more steely before it becomes thoughtful. Conventionally the exposition should finish at 3:28 but Schubert then adds a long codetta. Zinman brings both an irrepressible and triumphant
joie de vivre to it all. Relief comes in the development as the reflective material takes the foreground. However, I prefer Abbado’s handling of this movement. Zinman’s faster introduction (1:00 against Abbado’s 1:13) works less well here. Abbado also secures more poised dynamic contrast as the strings get softer and a greater delicacy is established which remains fundamental to the
Allegro. This he keeps even lighter and more feathery than Zinman. He achieves intensity without force, making the whole more intriguing and Mendelssohnian. Zinman is more stimulating but also more exhausting. The prolix codetta makes Zinman’s observation of the exposition repeat less of an advantage. Abbado does not favour the repeat.
The slow movement (tr. 6) is a Haydnesque winsome theme in E flat major. This is treated to gentle variations, largely changes of instrumentation. For instance the oboe is spotlit in Variation 1 (1:08). Zinman delightfully adds extra ornamentation in the repeats of the strains, as does his clarinet soloist in Variation 5 (5:33). There’s the surprise of a gruff Variation 4 in C minor (4:29), the contrast of which Zinman takes full advantage. At the same time he shows it’s only a storm in a teacup. I prefer the way Zinman presents the variations as a continual flow one into another, taking 7:29 as distinct from Abbado’s more studied series of tableaux taking 8:36. Mind you, Abbado allows you to enjoy more vertical detail and it comes with a coda of more grace and poise.
In the Minuet the mood is again gruff, the key C minor. The Tonhalle Orchestra’s playing has plenty of bite. Peppered with
sforzandi and a relentless stream of quavers in the strings, Zinman gives it the character of gritty striving. Even so there’s a kind of jubilation that emerges from this in its second section. He also makes it a true
Allegro vivace at 3:10, beside which Abbado’s 3:42 sounds rather leaden and polite. Zinman is then able to make the E flat major Trio a rather cheeky contrast in its oboe solo. There’s added ornamentation on repeat. A game flute and clarinet join the oboe in the second section. Abbado trips along here rather more innocently.
In the good-humoured finale Zinman begins the opening rondo theme at a light canter. Flute and oboe now mock the first violins in echo. There’s a pleasing contrast in the benignly humane second theme (tr. 8 0:44) which is given a sunny treatment. The third theme (4:35) is a development of the first four notes of the rondo theme with a brief counter-theme. All is clearly revealed by Zinman yet what you’ll respond to is the sheer spirit and energy of it all. Abbado emphasises lightness of texture, pointed gradation of dynamics and a more lissom second theme, neatly done. Zinman lets his hair down and this seems more appropriate for a finale. This makes for a fitting close to spirited accounts which revel in the liberal zeal of Schubert’s youth.
-- Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in D major, D 82 by Franz Schubert
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra
Written: 1813; Vienna, Austria
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