Schubert The Symphonies-Yehudi Menuhin

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Schubert The Symphonies-Yehudi Menuhin

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 4, 'Tragic'
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 8, 'Unfinished'
  • Symphony No. 9, 'Great'

Yehudi Menuhin’s refreshing, well-pointed readings of the late Mozart symphonies on Virgin Classics (3/90) were what first alerted us to the special relationship he has with the Sinfonia Varsovia, successor to the Polish Chamber Orchestra. Then a couple of years ago his lively recordings with them of the complete Beethoven symphonies appeared on Carlton (4/96). This cycle of Schubert symphonies is more impressive still, with performances electrically tense, generally at brisk speeds, with an easy feeling for Schubertian lyricism, helped by the alert, ripely responsive playing and full, immediate recording.
With Menuhin there is no question of the early symphonies, boyhood works often described as Haydnesque, being mistaken for eighteenth-century music. Though the string complement is modest, these are interpretations that bite home strongly, so that such a movement as the Scherzo of the Tragic Symphony (No. 4), with its violent syncopations, has a Beethovenian weight and bluff humour. The pity is that EMI have never reissued at any stage Menuhin’s excellent early Schubert symphony cycle, recorded at the end of the 1960s with what was described as the Menuhin Orchestra (and reviewed variously during 1969 and 1970). Already there Menuhin was adopting an approach ahead of its time, using a chamber orchestra not to give point and charm but to present Schubert’s arguments at full strength.
Speeds in the new versions of the early symphonies are very similar to those before, but if anything just a shade faster. What is strikingly different is that with more sharply focused as well as more atmospheric digital sound, the performances have extra point and bite, consistently sounding tauter. So in No. 3 the outer movements at brisk speeds have extra assurance in the Polish performances, with the second movement Allegretto lighter as well as brisker this time. Not that Menuhin is at all rough-mannered in his treatment of Schubert, even if he avoids mere charm. Such a difficult passage as the openingAllegro of No. 3 is delectably done, with the first theme gliding in easily as though emerging from another plane.
With the last two symphonies the approach remains consistent in its freshness, in its preference for fast, steady speeds, but aptly the weight is greater. The performance of theUnfinishedis one of extremes, with the gentlest ofpianissimoson cellos and basses at the very start, and with the great crescendo of the development section emerging out of the mists to a biting climax. Much more radical is Menuhin’s treatment of theGreatC major Symphony, in approach not so different from nearly 30 years ago, but with speeds markedly faster in every movement except theScherzo. The openingAndanteis as fast as I can ever remember hearing it, even in a period performance, very much geared in a modular way to Menuhin’s very brisk mainAllegro. Yet with these players there is no feeling of rush or breathlessness, and for the coda Menuhin even manages to accelerate without threatening ensemble or texture. The very end of the movement brings virtually no slowing till the final cadence, yet Menuhin again makes it feel natural and not sawn-off. He did much the same before, but at a slower basic tempo. In the slow movement the big ostinato climax in the middle is taken steadily with nostringendo, yet Menuhin rightly allows a slight easing for the lovely cello melody which follows.
With alert playing throughout and a forward, well-balanced recording which allows the wind and brass to have full impact, this is a set to attract those who, while sympathizing with the aims of period performance, prefer to have modern instruments. The disappointment is not to have Menuhin’s conversation in English: the supplementary disc offers it in German only. There is a printed English translation of what is said, but as the musical illustrations are not well signposted, its value is limited for the non-German speaker.'

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