The detail in this performance of the Overture to Die Zauberharfe (aka Rosamunde, D797) is revelatory. Woodwinds are revealed with great clarity, the Basel Chamber Orchestra’s early-Viennese horns have bright sonority, the trombones are ideally warm and timpani are clearly focussed. This admirable recorded quality also represents the strings satisfactorily, although it must be expected that in this context the violin lines do not impose as strongly as would be the case with a full symphony orchestra. Heinz Holliger gives a lively reading of this tuneful work adding one or two delightful rhythmic emphases.
Schubert’s ‘Great C-major’ Symphony (labelled here as No.8) is composed in the symphonic form of the period; its contours resemble those of a late Haydn Symphony but it is a great deal longer. Unfortunately many conductors seem not to understand the Classical roots of the composition and over the years traditional interpretational habits have crept in, mostly involving variations of tempo which disrupt the music’s progress and often there are random omissions of repeats. All this undermines Schubert’s clear structure.
Holliger’s view is refreshingly free from all these fads, and every repeat is observed, and this is clear from the outset when the Andante moves firmly along and is rhythmically related to the Allegro non troppo which follows. In referring to the opening horn melody Holliger has observed, “All of the symphony’s tempo relations are exactly related to this opening and subjected to a single basic pulse.” This is indeed the essence of his rhythmically secure conducting. In the first movement there is woodwind detail which is rarely heard and there is fresh excitement as these instruments drive the second subject eagerly forward. The moment of darkness, when the trombones instil their threatening rising figure, is shown in a way that is both calm and dramatic. Best of all, the triumphant return of the horn theme is taken throughout at the faster pace that Schubert requires.
Holliger takes a flowing view of the term Andante and in the second movement, with the addition of con moto to this instruction, the forward motion of the work is retained. This firmness of pulse does not preclude considerable expressiveness however, there are subtle touches of dynamic variation and phrasing is sensitive. Tiny touches of rubato do not slacken the progress and at the magical dialogue between horn and strings at bar 150 a little leeway must be forgiven, likewise the thoughtful cello response to the massive climax.
A moderate tempo is chosen for the Scherzo, sufficiently measured to allow the Trio to proceed in the same way. Here the clarity of the woodwind writing makes particular impact especially when those instruments sing elegantly above the sonorous harmonising trombones before the final return of the Scherzo. Holliger stresses the triumphant joyfulness of the Finale but he is also aware of its beauty; the quiet descent to the repeat of the first section is magical. The final chord is a matter for discussion. In the score it is marked fz; it is three bars long and has an indication above all the parts “>” which might either be a stress mark or a diminuendo. Holliger takes it to mean the latter and tailors the gentle fade skilfully.
This is among the finest recorded performances of Schubert 9. Holliger’s complete series of Schubert Symphonies is planned and I look forward to it.