Jansons’ Magnificent Schubert Ninth

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SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, “Great” / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900169 (live: Munich Herkulesaal, February 1-2, 2018)

The Schubert Ninth Symphony has been done to death so often over the past 80 years that I rarely if ever deign to review a new recording of it, but Mariss Jansons, a conductor who is either brilliant or routine, is so evidently into the music here that I found his interpretation irresistible.

To begin with, it’s nice to know that Arturo Toscanini, who always felt that the “slow” introduction to this symphony was taken too slowly, was finally vindicated when the autograph score was consulted and it was discovered that the opening section of the first movement was not in C tempo, which is 4/4, but in “cut time” (¢), which is 2/2. It makes a great deal of difference, and thus pretty much nullifies every old recording of the symphony that took the opening section at half the prescribed tempo.

But that’s not all. Jansons brings out details in the score than even Toscanini didn’t do as clearly, such as the “bouncing” horn triplets in the first movement, which, when heard, give the music an entirely different character. Moreover, Jansons “punches” the rhythmic accents of the brass with such felicity that the music almost steamrolls along. The timpani, too, is clearly recorded and strongly emphasized. The result is a first movement that makes a far greater impact than usual in recordings of this work. His phrasing is unconventional, but it works brilliantly.

The jauntiness of rhythm continues apace in the second movement, wherein Jansons uses some finely-judged moments of rubato at the ends of choruses. He also slows down the broad themes in the middle just enough to give the music breadth without sacrificing forward momentum, almost suspending time in places. He also introduces some interesting tenuto into the third movement, which make great musical sense while still propelling the rhythm, and the way the flutes emphasize their downward grace notes again works well in his overall concept. Just before the trio section, he slightly increases the tempo, which gives the soft syncopated string figures an extra bit of insouciance. Honestly, it’s like hearing the symphony for the very first time; you discover things in it that escaped you in previous readings.

Initially, I felt as if Jansons was taking the fourth movement too slowly—it runs nearly 17 minutes as compared to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 14 and a half—but once again, rhythmic accents buoy the momentum in such a way that the movement just sort of bubbles along over the peppy rhythmic triplets played by the cellos and basses, and in doing so Jansons creates a momentum that has great propulsion but doesn’t sound frantic. Once again, he introduces some brief yet surprising moments of rubato, and manages to keep the momentum up. At the end, in the famous (or infamous) passage where the basses are asked to play their quarter note passages with a slight hold or tenuto over the notes, Jansons does so without the overdone exaggeration that Toscanini used in his 1941 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. At this juncture, I really need to put in a good word for the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, which follows his directions flawlessly in what must have been, for them, a slightly eccentric reading of this timeworn symphony. This is quite clearly a world-class ensemble. He does not play the final chord as a diminuendo, as Tennstedt and Harnoncout did. Tennstedt told me that the so-called accent mark over the last chord, in the manuscript, is clearly too long and was thus intended to be a diminuendo, but the jury is still out on that and, although he and Harnoncourt brought it off successfully, it is not in my view a necessary feature of a normal performance of the symphony.

For Jansons, then, this music is obviously a journey and not just a sequence of oft-played phrases. In my view, it goes straight to the top of stereo or digital recordings of the work, as much a groundbreaking reading as were Toscanini’s performances back in the 1940s.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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