The Complete Symphonies; Rosamunde, overture and ballet music (Karajan)*

Schubert: The Complete Symphonies; Rosamunde, overture and ballet music. Berlin PO/ Karajan; HMV


The “complete” symphonies means the seven Schubert finished plus the one he notoriously didn't. Much of the other five is performable in musical theory, but hardly in commercial practice, which is clearly the main EMI concern. The outside cover displays the conductor in colour, looking powerful and intense; the inside leaflet shows the composer in monochrome, looking diffident and wistful. Guess which name is writ larger. Most of the interpretations follow this same pattern of a modestly unpretentious Schubert dominated by the von-loving Karajan, whose Olympian detachment from the required idiom can be judged from the wrongly-played appoggiaturas at bars 106-9 and 305-8 of the finale to no.1, and the wrongly-repeated opening of the Allegretto in no.3. The general effect is like taking a nature ramble by chauffeur-driven limousine.

    However, that procedure has certain obvious advantages; and the suave drive and polish of these performances are undeniably impressive in their way. Quite apart from their effortless and exhilarating turns of speed and surges of power, they offer some rewarding new perspectives. Thus the beautifully-played Rosamunde music has some striking affinities with the Schubert symphonic style; which in turn suggests that much of the actual symphonic inspiration was theatrical in origin, with French and Italian as well as German antecedents. In Karajan's hands the whole genre is redolent of the theatre, with overture, ballet and entr'acte; in particular the “Unfinished” and the “Great” C major sound like incidental music to a personal tragedy or a universal drama, strikingly predictive of Tchaikovsky or Mahler. But I feel that many if not most Schubertians will prefer all the symphonies plain, not to say unvarnished.


The Musical Times, Dec. 1979 (p. 1011) © the estate of eric sams