Schubert, Solti, and the Critics

I originally wrote this really long post on David Hurwitz and his criticisms of classic classical recordings. I meant for it to be a criticism of a critic, but then I realized something: who would want to read it?  So, instead, I have decided to focus on Sir Georg Solti’s recording of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, which Gramophone called “a winner among the many recordings of this symphony” and Hurwitz called a “driven, joyless bow-wow of a Schubert performance.”

This is not the first time that Hurwitz and various music critics at Gramophone have clashed on a recording’s merits: other examples include two famous Mahler recordings by Bruno Walter (Das Lied von der Erde with Ferrier, and his 1938 recording of the Ninth Symphony).  Also, occasionally, Hurwitz will praise something highly that Gramophone will think less of.

But I digress.  The question is, who is correct?  Well, let’s look at where they agree: both do not much care for the repeat in the finale.  For Hurwitz it “knocks the whole structure out of balance.”  For T.H. (the Gramophone reviewer), it makes Schubert sound as if he is “going through the motions.”

Hurwitz also points out (correctly), that the diminuendos, especially on the last note of the symphony, are bizarre and don’t make any musical sense (Schubert had horrible handwriting, so some people thought his accents might actually be diminuendos, which is strange, since they would be placed on the bottom of the staff if diminuendos, and above the notes if accents).  T.H, on the other hand, points out some of the great climaxes that Solti employs, and in which bars they occur.

Okay, so you have two men who are looking at a score while they are listening to this piece.  Interestingly, T.H. also admires Adrian Boult’s many readings of this symphony, which he compares the Solti version to.  Hurwitz hates both conductor’s readings.  So maybe there’s more of a personal opinion thing going on here than either one would care to admit.

My take: the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Solti plays up the brass a little too much in the first movement, at the expense of the woodwinds and strings (which sound a little screechy).  There is a lot of brass in this symphony, but one has to be careful that it doesn’t overpower the more lyrical aspects of the score.  After all, as his song cycles prove, Schubert was the most lyrical of composers: the John Keats of classical music.  Solti should be commended for not pushing the music as hard as he often did in his younger days (Wagner can take it, to an extent; Schubert can’t), but there’s still a little too much power and not enough glory.  Conversely, when there should be an explosive build-up right before the first movement’s main theme, it’s not nearly tense enough.

The difficulty in the second movement is in making the music sound both taut and relaxed at the same time. Solti treats the first subject as a severe march, but doesn’t let the strings relax enough to let more of the lyricism through.  He does better with the second subject, which includes some great woodwind playing, but then tightens up a little too much when it becomes more march-like.  In the third and fourth movements, which have more of an excitement factor to them, Solti fares better.

Personally, I don’t give a shit about repeats.  Only in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 do I think that the finale sounds better without the exposition repeat.  I’d have to compare this recording to one which doesn’t include it to see which one I prefer.  But again, while some of the climaxes in the third and fourth movements are done well (not as brassy, for some reason, as in the first movement), the sheer joy to be found in the best interpretations of this piece is somewhat lacking (only at one point during the symphony did I crack a smile in response to what I was hearing).  One wishes for more sweetness (and better balance among strings and brass), for more relaxed tempos, for less precision.  Not that we want lazy conducting, but one of the reason’s Toscanini’s fabulous 1941 recording of this symphony, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is so great is because it feels so relaxed.  The musicians sound as if they are having fun.  Solti gets some of that fun factor in the third and fourth movements, but never exploits the sheer joy that this symphony should create in the listener.  Schumann talks about it having “the sound of everlasting youth” in it, and — like in most things — Schumann was right.

So, in conclusion, this is a pretty good — but not great — recording of this symphony.  I would still recommend Toscanini’s 1941 version over this one any day (and I hear it’s now in better sound).  If I wanted a more modern recording, I would check out the Krips version (highly recommended by both Gramophone and Hurwitz) or the Tennstedt LPO version (which is, apparently, stylistically similar to Krips’s vision of the symphony, and who I love as a conductor via his Strauss and Mahler recordings).  Also one of Gunter Wand’s versions, as he seems to have been the most recent Schubertarian to appear on the music scene, even if we’re talking about recordings made in the last millenium.


4 thoughts on “Schubert, Solti, and the Critics

  1. Thanks for the clip, S.M.Toscanini said that Anderson's voice was one that comes along once a century, though–traditionally–baritones tend to sing Schubert's lieder (in particular his song cycles).@MeleeThanks, but if you read as many music reviews and books about music as I have, and listened to as much classical music as I have, and played clarinet for as many years as I did, then you'd have a pretty firm grasp of classical music, too. Plus, I listened to this CD several times before writing the review and was listening to it as I wrote the review. Also, I had the two reviews that I referenced as guideposts on what to listen for.Finally, I think you have a much deeper knowledge of modern music than I do. 🙂

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