Here’s an interesting comparative exercise after a partial clearing out of the CD collection ! The work: Schubert’s 9th Symphony (The Great). The orchestras : a) Academy of St Martin in the Fields / b) Cleveland Orchestra. The conductors: a) Sir Neville Marriner / b) George Szell.
At first blush, one might think that this was a no-brainer. Szell, as steeped in the Viennese tradition as they come, with the orchestra that he built up into one of the finest in the world. And because you might be thinking that all that the Academy of You Know What conducted by Sir You Know Who was Mozart and perhaps some Beethoven and Haydn and so on. And perhaps the timings of the tracks might also leading you to believe on the surface that the ASMF was taking a slightly more ponderous approach to things (at least two minutes slower than the Cleveland in all movements).
But, incredibly, the reverse is true. And perhaps it is a matter of size. Szell’s 9th seems ordinary, even ponderous at times compared to a fresher ASMF. So surprising that I had to check to make sure that I was listening to the right discs.
Where it is particularly telling is in the second movement. Marriner’s tempo is not too slow that one might drift off to sleep, but is finely measured. Szell’s tempo here is slightly faster than you might want it to be, almost as if he was in a hurry to get somewhere which makes for slightly (only slightly, mind) uncomfortable listening. It is marked Andante con moto, after all. A brisk walk is not something your want a regimental sergeant major to be in charge of, necessarily.
And what of the 3rd movement ? Why is the AMSF version double the time of the Cleveland’s. Could it be that a repeat has been missed ? Szell takes it at quite a clip once again (again, at ‘I’m at risk of missing my flight’ pace). Conversely, Marriner’s tempo are very much lieder-like. One can’t help thinking of trouts and summer (as opposed to winter) travels.
That said, the ASMF recording (a 1994 Philips recording) is not perfect. There’s a little too much reverb from the recording venue compared to the more intense sound of the Cleveland on its Sony Columbia recording (a reissue of a 1962 release). But this is a minor matter. On the whole, I much prefer the Academy of You Know What’s cleaner sound, especially in the strings. Taking just a tad slower does allow you to appreciate the interweaving of the various harmonies so characteristic of Schubert.