Schubert's last symphony has always been called "the Great C major," not by way of value judgment, but simply to distinguish it from the composer's earlier and slighter symphony in the same key. "Great," in other words, was only a way of saying "big," and it seemed a more euphonious translation of the German grosse, which could be taken either way.
The nature of this big symphony is such, however, that the term "great" has, by more or less unanimous consent of the music-loving public, affixed itself as a descriptive title. Two recordings have just arrived that emphasize to a remarkable degree both the dimensions and the depth of this extraordinary work. Both were taped in Berlin churches, nearly 27 years apart.
The newer one comes to us by way of Japan. It is a two-disc digital recording in Nippon Columbia's Denon series (OB-7350/7351-ND), recorded in East Berlin last June by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orcestra under Heinz Roegner, that orchestra's conductor since 1973. Although Roegner was general music director of the Berlin State Opera for 11 yeears before taking over the orchestra, he is virtually unknown in this country; he should not remain so for long if this recording enjoys the circulation it deserves.
From the very first phrase, it is apparent Roegner's is to be a grand-scaled reading of this grand-scaled symphony, and so it is, with broad tempi, emphatic gestures, grand firmness and solidity in the "spiritual" quality one associates with this work is happily present, but unforced: The overall impression is one of exalted simplicity, which indeed is just how one might describe the work itself.
The one point that may trouble some listeners, as it did me, was the sudden slowing down for the development in the second movement. Otherwise, this is a grand and convincing realization of the symphony, and it is easy enough to understand why both German and Japanese commentators have compared it with Furtwaengler's
As it happens, the second of the two new releases is actually a reissue of Furtwaengler's famous 1951 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, beautifully remastered now in Deutsche Grammophon's Privilege series (2535.808; cassette 3335.808). The mono sound, better than in any of this recording's previous incarnations, enables us to enjoy this fascinating performance beyong its "historical" context and, in a sense, to hear a legend come to life. Even among Furtwaengler's recordings, this one is exceptional, I think, because it so successfully transmits the qualities that made the great conductor unique. The spontaneity, the mystic intensity, the undercurrent of nervous excitement and on-the-spot inspiration, can be felt with remarkable vividness. Neither Roegner's performance, nor Toscanini's three, nor any other on records gives off an aura quite like this.
Furtwaengler, by the way, for all his own flexibility and freedom, remains with more or less the same tempo throughout the second movement, without the shifting of gears in which Roegner indulges. Both of these, though, are extraordinary in their ways-Roegner perhaps even more majestic than Furtwaengler (rather like a more energized Boehm), the latter utterly free of any gesture that might be regarded as earthbound or prosaic, both bearing noble witness to the truly "Great" C major.
While the refurbished mono sound of the Furtwaengler recording is a nice surprise, the magnificently spacious and realistic sound of the new Roegner recording is as impressive as the performance itself Denon has spread the Symphony over all four sides to avoid any compressing of the gorgeous sound, which is much warmer and richder than the vivid but somewhat dry sonic frame provided last year for Kurt Sanderling's Tchaikovsky Fourth with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (a lesser ensemble than the Radio Orchestra) on this label.
The Furtwaengler recording, too, was originally issued by American Decca in a two-disc set, but on only three sides, and it would seem that Denon could easily have put the 25-minute total playing time of the scherzo and finale on a single side and given us some additional music on side four. However, there is no denying the success of the sound as the set is laid out, and the two discs are offered at a special price of $18-only $4 more than the price of a single Denon LP, and about the same as that of two non-digital imported and discs.