Schubert: Symphonies, Volume 1 – No 3 in D major; No 5 in B flat major; No 8 in B minor (Unfinished)

Reviewed on Mon 25 Feb, 2019

Dynamic range is very wide, reproducing Gardner’s unimpeachable control of instrumental balance and texture with lines meaningfully moulded.

In a programme note for the Crystal Palace season 1880-81, Sir George Grove described the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony as having “imagination in its grandest, wildest and most delicate flights; tenderness to a degree which no poet or composer ever surpassed; melodies such as few musicians have been gifted with; facility and power of expression which Mozart himself might have envied.” Effusive exaggeration? Not if you listen to Edward Gardner’s conception of the work, responding to all the epithets and walking the wild side through a ‘power of expression’ on the highest plane. Tension sets in as whisper-quiet cellos and double basses steal in out of nothingness – closely followed by antiphonally separated violins also playing pianissimo – to offer an exposition (repeated) that exemplifies a performance where pulse is firmly held within a flexible tempo that inexorably sweeps toward fortissimo climaxes, timpani militant, brass ablaze. Dynamic range is very wide, reproducing Gardner’s unimpeachable control of instrumental balance and texture with lines meaningfully moulded. Duplicate these stylistic virtues in the second movement, and you have an interpretation of the ‘Unfinished’ that probes subconscious undercurrents hidden behind the composer’s cherubic, benign countenance. Earlier efforts like Nos 3 & 5 rather reflect his “long-lasting incompatibility with the symphonic genre” (Prof. L. Michael Griffel), perhaps born of feelings of mediocrity expressed to Josef Peitl his one-time teacher. Gardner doesn’t disguise their unevenness of quality, nor does he underplay his role in the ‘Unfinished’, the first in Schubert’s quest to write a symphony on a scale equal to Beethoven’s oeuvre. It also heralded his intention “to pave my way towards a grand symphony” – which turned out to be No 9.
–Nalen Anthoni