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 Recording of the Week  Claudio Abbado conducts Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony

It might seem odd that this week I'm talking about a new recording conducted by Claudio Abbado, given that the great Italian maestro sadly died in January last year, and I already wrote glowingly last July about the recording of his final concert of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, but it turns out that there are other concert recordings that exist, one of which we are treated to here.

This live recording of Schubert's Great C major symphony (either the Eighth or the Ninth depending on your numbering system!), comes from concerts in Bologna and Bolzano from September 2011, and features Orchestra Mozart, of which Abbado had been Artistic Director since its inception in 2004. As it happens, the first half of the same concerts (a delightful account of Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 27 with Maria João Pires as soloist) had already been released on disc back in 2012, so it's wonderful now to have the second half as well.

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado

I must admit that I've never really got on terribly well with this symphony: in the wrong hands it can very easily become stodgy, plodding, and seemingly interminable (I'm fully aware that this is much more my problem than it is Schubert's: I've probably just been unlucky and attended some bad performances!). Not here, however: I must have listened to this recording at least a dozen times over the weekend, and never once did I even start to get bored or feel that the pace was sagging. I was pondering how it was that Abbado managed to achieve this: it's not especially a matter of tempo, as Abbado's speeds aren't particularly fast (although to be fair the first movement is perhaps slightly more flowing than usual), but it's more to do with his expert ear for clarity and balance. Rhythms are kept springy, and there's a freshness and vigour to it that kept me enthralled throughout.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the very opening of the symphony: it begins with eight bars of horns gently intoning the main theme of the movement. On the page it doesn't look like very much at all, and indeed I've heard performances where it becomes a kind of bland nothingness, but just listen to the way Abbado carefully crafts and shapes each bar, helped by some sensitive horn playing (including an audible difference between piano and pianissimo). The string sound, both at their first entry and throughout the symphony, is really quite beautiful: they glide in gently with the most expressive of tone, aided in no small measure by an exquisite viola sound.

I shouldn't leave out the woodwind either: the oboe solo at the start of the second movement is full of poise and refinement, and there's some highly characterful bassoon playing elsewhere too. In fact, the whole orchestra is on top form, with the trumpets and trombones helping to add excitement to the last movement especially. So, all in all, this is a delight of a recording, and it certainly caused me to change my mind about a piece that I had previously thought was a bit too long and heavy. Abbado's years of experience, coupled with playing of the highest quality, make this a captivatingly polished recording that I thoroughly recommend!

Schubert: The "Great" C major Symphony

Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC