Franz Schubert - Symphony No. 9
Schubert's ninth symphony suffers from something of an identity crisis not of its own making. It was originally published in 1840 as Schubert's seventh symphony and is often called the "Great", primarily to distinguish it from his sixth symphony, also in C Major, sometimes referred to as the "Little". However, the term "Great" is now more often applied to refer to the overall majesty and power of what is frequently now regarded as Schubert's greatest symphonic work. To this day, the Germans refer to it as the seventh, while the English refer to it as the ninth with some taking the middle ground and calling it, bizarrely, the eighth. Americans tend to drop the numbering altogether and just call it the "Great".
Part of the confusion stems from the time of its composition. It was not published until over a decade after Schubert's death in 1828 and for a long time was believed to have been begun shortly before his death. That work, in D Major, is now regarded as Schubert's tenth symphony and it is now believed that he began work on this one in 1825. It was first performed as a whole in 1839 having been found in Schubert's papers by Robert Schumann the year before.
The symphony is often regarded as Schubert's finest. It is also one of Schubert's most innovative and daring works and marks for many the high point of the early Romantic period. Schubert devotes more attention to the melody, though the Beethoven-esque structure and feel of the work remains clearly discernable as Beethoven was a lifelong influence on him. One clear distinction from Beethoven is Schubert's use of the trombone, which is given much wider freedom to form an integral part of the music than Beethoven allowed it. As befits a man who wrote over 600 lieder, the symphony has a much more accessible feel to it as many of the melodies would have been familiar to his Schubert's audience.
Although it has become one of the most popular pieces in Schubert's repertoire, at the time of its composition, it was regarded as being difficult to play and overly long - it is normally about 59 minutes in length. Although rehearsed by the Gessellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna when first written, it never got beyond that stage. The combination of the liveliness of some of the passages, particularly towards the end of the opening movement and the sometimes fiery tempo of the second movement in particular have proven difficult to replicate well, even to this day. At a time when music and musicians were expected to fit in with the stifling creative rules of the post-Versailles Austrian political regime (Schubert was once arrested along with three companions pretty much for being a student and meeting with other students - highly suspicious in Metternich's reactionary vision of Europe) Schubert's innovation might even be seen as taking risks.
The recording here was a live performance in 2006 by the Philharmonia of London conducted by the Australian Sir Charles Mackerras. The fact it was recorded live has a rather peculiar effect on the recording. On the one hand, it has a feeling of much greater freshness than many studio recordings can hope to achieve. On the other, at the end of each movement, there is a strange silence, with only one or two stifled coughs or shuffling of clothing against seats. Then, at the conclusion of the work, the live audience breaks out into applause, but even that seems stilted and could hardly be described as rapturous. It is a truly peculiar event and one which I feel is typical of the sort of thing which puts so many people off classical music, thinking it is the preserve of elitist snobs.
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