Nikolaus Harnoncourt has performed regularly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for over 30 years. Following recordings for Teldec of the late symphonies of Mozart and Haydn and of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, they explored the Schubert symphonies with fresh interpretations that “set new standards, polishing and reshaping the image of Schubert, the symphony composer.” (Musica)
These four CDs, comprising Schubert’s entire symphonic output and the two Overtures ‘in the Italian style,” were recorded live in concert in 1992.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt is convinced that Schubert’s early symphonies in particular are misunderstood. He performed them as a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and felt at the time that he knew them intimately. But later he began to study them – as they were written, not as they are usually performed – and he also studied the early songs. He came to the conclusion that Schubert was not trying to write in a brilliant style to imitate composers like Rossini but that he had made a conscious decision to write music in his own way. “In his early symphonies, as in the early songs, Schubert is already Schubert.” (Harnoncourt)
The first six symphonies were composed between 1813 and 1818, when Schubert was in his late teens and early 20s. During the period from 1818 to 1822, he composed a few symphonic fragments including the Symphony in B minor, the so-called ‘Unfinished.’ It was in 1822 that he composed two movements and sketched the third but only orchestrated its first nine measures. The score was left unfinished and unpublished for many years, resurfacing in 1865, some 37 years after the composer’s death. Schubert’s “Great” C Major symphony, composed in 1828, the last year of his life, was submitted to the Musikverein in Vienna but was deemed too difficult to play. In 1839, Robert Schumann came across the complete, yet unknown, score, which he sent to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. They performed it the same year and it was “rapturously acclaimed.”
Review of Harnoncourt/Royal Concertgebouw Schubert Symphonies CDs in Classic CD:
“The playing bristles with the energy and optimism of a youthful composer aware of the symphonic heritage (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are regularly alluded to in passing), but already speaking in a clear, individual language of his own. [The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s] playing throughout the cycle is extraordinarily sensitive to Harnoncourt’s direction. … Dramatic performances of the two ‘mature’ symphonies … set the seal on what is undoubtedly the Schubert symphony cycle of the 1990s.”