Schubert Symphonies

Written by Anne E. Johnson

The past 12 months have seen the release of several important new recordings of Schubert symphonies, two of which are part of series of all nine (yeah, I’m counting that “Unfinished” one, but I count it, since it’s probably Schubert’s most often-recorded work).

Following their 2016 recording of Symphonies 1, 3, and 4, the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and conductor Philipp Herreweghe are back on the Phi label with another volume in the set. This one features Symphonies 2 and 5, both of which are in B flat.

Nobody who hears the slow introduction to the first movement of Symphony No. 2, D. 125, can doubt that young Schubert was obsessed with Beethoven. The wind-heavy, thundering orchestration, the intense harmonies – these are tributes to his favorite composer. The transition from slow introduction to main first-movement sonata form themes (in this case marked Allegro vivace) is subtler in this piece than in some, and before you know it you’re flitting along on sixteenth notes. Herreweghe shows his signature grace, and the Antwerp players produce a relaxed yet virtuosic sound.


The other work on his recording, Symphony No. 5, D. 485, ends with a movement that’s also marked Allegro vivace. Herreweghe takes the tempo easy, pulling the reins tight in a way that some might find too confining. But vivace means “lively,” not “wild,” and this interpretation is both energetic and elegant.


It seems likely that Herreweghe and Antwerp will record the remaining symphonies while they’re at it, although it has not been officially announced. There’s no speculation required about the new recording by Residentie Orkest The Hague and conductor Jan Willem de Vriend, which is titled Schubert: The Complete Symphonies, Vol. 1. This first offering, on the Challenge Classics label, includes Symphonies 2 and 4.

Comparing de Vriend’s opening Largo – Allegro vivace with that of Herreweghe, the immediate difference is the interpretation of the initial dotted rhythm. Herreweghe, whose background is steeped in early music, uses a technique called “overdotting” (not normally associated with repertoire of Schubert’s day) to draw the first dotted eighth note longer in each pattern, thus making the following sixteenth shorter. De Vriend’s more mathematically correct interpretation is the standard one.

Throughout the Largo, de Vriend shapes each phrase as an answer to the last, often using slight dynamic changes to etch out the contrast. The allegro vivace, although a hair slower than Herreweghe’s, makes up for that by sounding more frenetic and less controlled.


De Vriend proves he can do elegance as well as anybody in the second movement, a theme-and-variation Andante. He shapes the phrases exquisitely, with the tiniest delay at each climax and cadence. It leaves you breathless. And that Residentie Orkest woodwind section is word class.


The so-called “Tragic” Symphony, No. 4 in C minor, D. 417, rounds out the album. The dramatic Allegro finale movement doesn’t have quite the bite and rhythmic delineation it might, with the technically challenging A-section bridge coming slightly unglued.


Besides those two worthy studio recordings, 2018 has also brought out two top-notch live recordings of Schubert symphonies. BR Klassik released a performance of the “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, with the Symphonieorchester des bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Orchestra), conducted by their current music director, Mariss Jansons.

The Ninth Symphony hasn’t always been called that. It was published posthumously – in 1840, a dozen years after Schubert’s death — as Symphony No. 7 (his actual seventh symphony was written but not fully orchestrated), and some sticklers still call it the Eighth because the one before it is the famous “Unfinished.” In any event, it is Schubert’s last completed symphony, although not his last completed work; it’s also known that he was drafting a tenth symphony when he died in 1828.

And, while the nickname “Great” was first attached to this work to distinguish it from the shorter C major symphony, No. 6, these days it’s associated with the grandeur of the piece. That’s a good term for this B.R.O. performance. From the French horn’s hunting call in the opening Andante bars, through the Allegro ma non troppo first movement, Jansons fills the Philharmonie am Gasteig with sweeping grandeur. In spite of some ensemble issues with the violins, the way Jansons distinguishes the instrumental voices – particularly the reeds – makes this first movement an interesting addition to the catalog.


The articulation in the Scherzo Allegro third movement gives a sense of Teutonic rural foot-stomping, a timely that Schubert was, in his bones, a composer of folk music. Again, the careful articulation earns attention: listen to the slight bite of the third beat in the violins during some passages, propelling the dance forward, and the slight delay of the last downbeat of some phrases.



The other new live recording features the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique led by Sir John Elliot Gardiner at the Concertgebouw. This is the second live release of ORR/Gardiner on the SDG label, the first being Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7 at Carnegie Hall. This one includes Schubert’s Fifth plus Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A Major. It’s a thrilling performance, marred somewhat by extraneous audience noises, some of which are so loud that one wonders if it’s the sound engineer coughing. Nevertheless, it’s a great reading of Schubert 5.

Because YouTube only has the entire Schubert as a single video, here are the start times of each movement:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante con moto (starts 7:18)

III. Menuetto. Allegro molto – Trio (starts 18:04)

  1. Allegro vivace (starts 23:12)


The third movement is an interesting miniature, a mere five-minute affair, but intensely symphonic, with so much harmonic development and complex orchestration it could be mistaken for an excerpt from a sonata-form first movement. Gardiner revels in the drama, slashing the downbeats like he’s conducting a windstorm, the better to contrast with the sweet, gentle Trio.

That sense of abandon is also present in the finale. It’s fun to compare Gardiner to Herreweghe, since both conductors have such solid resumes in early music. Herreweghe sculpts the Antwerp Symphony’s sound into delicate wisps. Gardiner rides the ORR into a burning building; apparently he does believe that vivace can mean “wild.”

Back to Copper home page