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Schubert: Symphony No 8; Brahms: Symphony No 3 / Davis

Schubert / Brahms / Skd / Davis
Release Date: 04/26/2011 
Label:  Profil   Catalog #: 8043   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz SchubertJohannes Brahms
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dresden Staatskapelle
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 7 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

An exceptionally satisfying disc.

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.” BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 Colin Davis, cond; Staatskapelle Dresden PROFIL 8043 (67:21) Live: Dresden 10/22/1992

Up until fairly recently, millions of music lovers, myself included, have known Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony as No. 8 for their entire lives. Symphony No. 7 was essentially a placeholder for what may or may not be the Read more previously thought to be lost “Gastein” Symphony. But in recent years things have gotten complicated.

All of this altogether unnecessary confusion began years ago with the renumbering of Schubert’s “Great” C-Major Symphony from No. 7 to No. 9, when definitive research showed it to postdate the “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor, known by generations as No. 8. But to obsessive-compulsive minds unable to deal with the missing number 7 left vacant where the “Great C Major” used to be, this was a situation in urgent need of a remedy to ward off certain neurotic crisis. And so, another renumbering was instigated by the New Schubert-Edition , work on which began in 1965 and is still ongoing, with a 2016 targeted completion date.

The “Unfinished” B-Minor Symphony, previously No. 8, was demoted to No. 7. But that left a missing number where it used to be. So, the “Great” C-Major Symphony, which in my lifetime went from No. 7 to No. 9, was demoted to No. 8. The problem is where does that leave the other “unfinished” Symphony in E Major, still identified in the listings as No. 7?

Are you bewildered yet? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. The most recent version of the Deutsch catalog (the standard catalog of Schubert’s works), conforming to the New Schubert-Edition , now lists the “Great C Major” as No. 8, while English-speaking scholars and sources still hold it to be No. 9. Either in despair or disgust, some American orchestras have abandoned numbering altogether, simply calling it the “Great” C-Major Symphony in their printed programs. And by and large, record companies and mail-order services have not taken up the new numbering scheme. Fanfare holds to the conventional system, with the “Unfinished” remaining No. 8.

If only well enough had been left alone, we wouldn’t have this ambiguity over which Schubert symphony is which. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that there’s a numbering gap in Mozart’s symphonies between the “Linz” (No. 36) and the “Prague” (No. 38). So why couldn’t we live with Schubert’s “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” continuing to be Nos. 8 and 9 and there being no No. 7? So much for my editorializing.

The current CD documents a single concert program featuring Colin Davis conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Brahms’s Third Symphony in October 1992. The recording is not an air-check but a professional job engineered by the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk and remastered from the original 15-ips tapes. Consequently, the sound is excellent.

Four years later, with this same orchestra, Davis recorded a Schubert symphony cycle (the standard 1–6 and 8 and 9) for RCA, currently available as a four-disc budget import set. Predating both that cycle and the stand-alone “Unfinished” on this Profil release, Davis produced a Brahms symphony cycle, I believe, beginning in 1989 and spilling over into the early 1990s, also for RCA, but with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I was sure I had that Brahms set, but apparently not, so I’m pleased to have at least the conductor’s Brahms Third on this disc, for I hold Davis in high regard. I do, however, have Davis’s Schubert cycle, so I’m able to compare this “Unfinished” with his later one in the set.

The Schubert on the current CD is somewhat more striking. Perhaps because it’s a live performance, the reading comes across as bolder and more dramatic, with dynamic contrasts more arresting and the murmuring in the strings at the outset more mysterious. The later commercial recording for RCA gains in discipline what it loses in spontaneity. It’s a tighter though not necessarily tauter reading, by which I mean more controlled and scrupulous in attention to detail but, for all that, not tenser or more on edge than the performance at hand. Tempos are faster overall in the later version—not by much in the first movement (15:34 to 15:55), but considerably more so in the second movement (11:34 to 12:11). This is in keeping with what I mean by the later reading being tighter.

Between the two Schuberts, my preference would be for this Profil release of Davis’s earlier performance. The later RCA version has about it the feel of a routine commercial run-through, but only in direct comparison with this more exciting live event. Without this one at hand as a comparator, you wouldn’t feel shortchanged in any way by Davis’s RCA account.

I don’t know how I missed acquiring Davis’s Brahms cycle, but hearing his reading of the Third Symphony on this disc, even if it is with a different orchestra, makes me want to pick up a copy of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra set as soon as possible, for Davis and his Dresden forces deliver a knockout performance. Again, as in the Schubert, what distinguishes this reading is not that it’s the last word in precision of orchestral execution—there’s some occasionally less-than-perfect togetherness in the ensemble—but that it presents a gripping drama that unfolds with an uncanny sense of timing and dramatic momentum. And, perhaps a bit unusual for a performance of this vintage, Davis even observes the first-movement exposition repeat.

This, by the way, is Volume 29 in Profil’s Edition Staatskapelle Dresden . I was hoping that Davis might have been captured in live performances of Brahms’s other three symphonies, but a perusal of Profil’s catalog didn’t turn them up. Hopefully, there is more in the vaults to come.

If you’re in the market for another Schubert “Unfinished” and Brahms Third—I assume you already have several—I can definitely recommend this one for both outstanding performances and recording.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

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Sir Colin Davis has a long association with the Staatskapelle Dresden. He first appeared with them in 1981 and the association prospered to the extent that in 1991 he was named the orchestra’s first-ever Honorary Conductor. This disc is devoted to two live performances, given at the same concert in 1992 just a few days before Sir Colin led the orchestra on a twelve-concert tour of Japan, the repertoire for which included both these symphonies. It seems to me that these performances bespeak an excellent rapport between conductor and players.
 
The Schubert might be termed an “old-fashioned” performance. It’s spacious and romantic in conception and, in my view, none the worse for that, especially when it’s played as well as this. The first movement is especially impressive. Davis and his players make the most of the dynamic contrasts written into the score and, indeed, use these contrasts to enhance – though not exaggerate - the symphonic drama. So the movement begins at the edges of audibility and the familiar first subject steals in: all this feels just right. A bit further on, there’s another example of felicitous dynamics when a long crescendo (between 7:38 and 8:27) is superbly achieved. The sound starts almost from nothing and gradually swells, its growth organic and natural. Davis leads a deeply serious interpretation of this movement, generating a good deal of tension. He’s helped to realise his conception by some glorious, unforced playing; the whole performance is masterly.
 
In some ways, after this the Andante feels a little anti-climactic. However, the performance is delicate and affectionate. The playing is consistently refined but in the louder passages there’s the requisite degree of weight and strength. One can only admire the lovely wind playing – the principal clarinet is especially pleasing - while the string tone is rich and deep. It’s a glowing performance.
 
The Brahms Third is no less successful. Indeed this is one of those performances where everything just seems right. The first movement is launched with vigour and throughout this movement – and throughout the symphony, in fact – the strength and tonal depth of the Dresdeners is very satisfying; the sonority of the basses is particularly welcome. The exposition repeat is taken of course, and later the development section is delivered with great energy.
 
Davis achieves an easy, warm lyricism in II – again the playing is burnished – and I felt that the phrasing was beautifully poised, The reading of III is unforced and natural, enhanced by some singing string contributions. The horn solo at 4:00 has that distinctive East European tone and as I listened I reflected that Brahms may well have been used to hearing such a sound from the horn players of his day.
 
Davis’s way with the finale strikes me as ideal. He invests the very opening with a fine feeling of suppressed energy but from 0:50 he obtains real vigour from the orchestra. The main allegro material is played with vitality and dynamism. And then, from around 6:23, the extended valedictory coda is beautifully handled, bringing a most satisfying interpretation to a lovely close, the dying embers of Brahms’s music glowing gently but brightly.
 
The recording emanates from a broadcast by the radio station MDR Kultur. Their engineers have done a fine job in reporting the orchestra. The booklet is well illustrated though the extensive booklet note, at least in its English translation, is somewhat on the fulsome side.
 
This is an exceptionally satisfying disc, reminding us once again – as if we needed it – what a distinguished conductor Sir Colin Davis is and how fine an instrument is the Staatskapelle Dresden.  

– John Quinn, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1. Symphony no 8 in B minor, D 759 "Unfinished" by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dresden Staatskapelle
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1822; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Semperoper, Dresden, Germany 
Length: 28 Minutes 6 Secs. 
2. Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dresden Staatskapelle
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Austria 
Venue:  Semperoper, Dresden, Germany 
Length: 38 Minutes 30 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished": I. Allegro moderato
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished": II. Andante con moto
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: I. Allegro con brio - Un poco sostenuto
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: II. Andante
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: III. Poco allegretto
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: IV. Allegro - Un poco sostenuto

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