Roger Norrington / SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Schubert: Symphonies 6 & 8

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The historically informed performances of British conductor Roger Norrington have long been lightning rods for controversy, which he has at times seemed to pursue for its own sake. But he's been at it long enough to have left his stamp on performances by a great many other musicians, and it's worthwhile even for his detractors to come to terms with his achievement. His recordings of music of the 19th century with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony of the Southwest German Radio have at times been as controversial as ever, but those of the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert may offer a relatively painless way into the Norrington phenomenon. The orchestra consists of modern instruments for which Norrington has drilled the players in producing historically appropriate sounds. Vibrato is pruned back to an absolute minimum, tempos are quick, and the brass and winds get full prominence in the texture (ironically, a quality for which Schubert's Symphony No. 6 in C major, D. 589, was criticized at its premier). This compromise may seem to draw on the worst of both worlds, but consider the recording of the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 ("Unfinished"), a work for which there is certainly no shortage of available readings. Norrington reins in the schmaltz factor on the opening movement's celebrated G major second theme and imparts a fine sense of space to the work's main thematic material. His slow movement may be a bit brisk for some, but it's a coherent, tight reading. The wind and brass writing in the Symphony No. 6 is indeed explored in detail, and the work's textures are carefully balanced at the point where the young Schubert first really mastered the implications of Beethoven's symphonic style. The dryness that puts some people off from Norrington is still there, but with sympathetic engineering from the Hänssler label, this is a reasonable and far-from-bristly Schubert symphony recording.

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