This performance of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony brings to mind a recent recording by Edward Gardner’s near-namesake John Eliot because reservations about the interpretations are similar. Although this Birmingham version avoids the four-bar cut imposed on the first movement in JEG’s reading, there are similar shifts of tempo and when it comes to the Minuet, there is the same uncomfortable drooping of tempo for the Trio. Gardner is very expressive in his phrasing, the music relaxing before moving forward. These modifications are not overdone but they undermine forward impulse. Flexibility is much more suited to the Andante con moto and the Finale takes off at very hot pace – the touch is light, the strings delicate and basic speed is retained.
The more fully-scored Symphony No.3 is characterised by swift speeds and they suit it well. There is excellent woodwind-playing although the strings throw off their phrases casually and the timpani lack both emphasis and definition at the stronger moments. The brief Allegretto is effective at this swift pace but the Minuet is so rapid that it no longer seems like an eighteenth-century dance and the Trio enters late at a hugely reduced pace; it is then infiltrated by hesitant upbeats and ends even slower than it began. To take a fast tempo for the Finale is an excellent idea but it becomes rushed and unstable. For comparison I found another recording identical in speed to the very second – that of Roy Goodman whose dashing reading is rhythmically firm and for all its swiftness does not sound hurried.
There is nothing wrong with the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony being played more flowingly than is usual and because of its more expansive structure it responds well to Gardner’s careful shaping but there are uncomfortable moments: the opening is so quiet as to be barely audible, the beautiful second subject fails to retain basic speed and lacks weight from the lower strings and the beginning of the exposition repeat is only just discernible. Pizzicatos are subdued in the development and yet the dramatic nature of the music is well-fashioned, a wide dynamic range being part of this interpretative view. The recording represents the timpani more clearly and more drily than in Symphony 3 and their detailed rhythms support the powerful passages in the Andante very effectively, although it is surprising to hear so little of cellos and basses. However, this is an appealing, carefully considered interpretation supported by committed playing, but I should not have needed to pay so much attention to the volume control.