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David Zinman starts work on the complete cycle of Schubert symphonies.

Music Review: David Zinman and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich – Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 and Schubert: Symphony No. 7 “Unfinished”

The first two CDs in David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich‘s projected recordings of the complete symphonies of Franz Schubert were released last month by Sony Classical. The Schubert project comes on the heels of the success of the conductor’s critically celebrated recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, as well as a notable cycle of the tone poems of Richard Strauss. Zinman, noted for his rejection of some of the overblown symphonic interpretations of earlier leading conductors, has long sought a fresh approach to the music by returning to the study of original manuscripts and instrumentation. It is this aesthetic, “the third way,” that has informed his work since the ’90s and continues to inform this new work.

The first of the new discs contains Schubert’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major and Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Major. Although these, like all of his first six symphonies, are not considered the equal of his mature work, it is always instructive to follow the early development of artistic genius. Thomas Meyer points out in the liner notes that although the composer himself thought of these as youthful works and “did not have an excessively high opinion” of them, it is really only in the context of the towering greatness of his later symphonic work that they pale. Zinman’s crisp interpretations make a good case for some reevaluation. These are works as enjoyable for their musical power as they are for their historical interest.

The second disc features the celebrated “Unfinished Symphony” (Symphony No. 7 in B Minor as it is called here, or Symphony No. 8 as it is more often called). Here, of course, there is no question of importance, along with his last symphony, the “Great Symphony,” the “Unfinished” is one of the most compelling masterworks of the classical repertoire. The reason the work was left unfinished is something of a mystery. Theories range from the idea that he used the musical ideas originally intended for the symphony’s next movement for another work, to the theory that he liked it the way it was. Speculation aside, the composer’s failure to complete it has done little to detract from its popularity over the years.

Although most likely earlier recordings of the symphony are part of most collectors’ musical libraries, it will be well worth your time to pay some attention to the Tonhalle performance. Zinman’s reading powerfully emphasizes the work’s dreamlike qualities with precise concentration on detail. This version may not replace some previous favorites—be it the Leonard Bernstein ’63 recording, or Herbert von Karajan’s 2008 with the Berlin Philharmonic, or any of a dozen others—it will absolutely give any one of them a run for its money.

This second album also includes three violin concert works with Andreas Janke, Tonhalle’s concert master as soloist: “Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major,” “Polonaise In B Flat Major for Violin and Orchestra” and “Concert Piece in D Major for Violin and Orchestra.” Meyer’s extensive liner notes for both CDs are available in the original German and in English and French translations. They provide the listener with a valuable primer on the themes and structure of each of the individual works

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