Schubert / Symphony No. 9 “The Great” / Krips / LSO – The Early London Pressings Are Awful

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Sonic Grade: F

Presenting another member of our Hall of Shame.

What was most striking about this shootout was how poorly the original London Bluebacks fared when going head to head with the best vintage reissues. In fact, they were so obviously inferior I doubt we would have even needed another pressing to know that they could not possibly be considered Hot Stampers.

The two we had were crude, flat, full of harmonic distortion, and both had clearly restricted frequency extremes. I remember liking the Blueback pressings I played ten or twenty years ago.

Did I have better copies, or was my system not capable of showing me the shortcomings I so clearly heard this time around? Since this is a question that cannot be answered with any certainty, we’ll have to leave it there.

Numbering Issues

There continues to be some controversy over the numbering of this symphony, with German-speaking scholars sometimes numbering it as symphony No. 7, the most recent version of the Deutsch catalog (the standard catalogue of Schubert’s works, compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch) listing it as No. 8, and English-speaking scholars often listing it as No. 9. – Wikipedia

Wikipedia Background on The Symphony No. 9

The Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, known as the Great (published in 1840 as “Symphony No. 7 in C Major”, is the final symphony completed by Franz Schubert. Originally called The Great C major to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the Little C major, the subtitle is now usually taken as a reference to the symphony’s majesty. A typical performance takes around 55 minutes, though it can be played in 45 at a faster tempo.

Often considered Schubert’s finest piece for orchestra, this symphony is also one of the composer’s most innovative pieces. Thematic development in the style of Beethoven is still present in the work, but Schubert puts far more emphasis on melody, which one might expect from the composer of some six hundred lieder. In fact, this new style prompted Schumann to pursue his own symphonic ambitions.

The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A and C, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in C, 2 trumpets in A and C, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

In 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, Robert Schumann visited Vienna and was shown the manuscript of the symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde by Ferdinand Schubert. He took a copy that Ferdinand had given him back to Leipzig, where the entire work was performed publicly for the first time by Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 21 March 1839. Schumann celebrated the event in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik with an ecstatic article in which, in a phrase destined to become famous, he hailed the symphony for its ‘heavenly length’. Legend claims that, during a rehearsal of the first movement, one musician was reported as asking another if he had managed to hear a tune yet. On the other hand, having heard its first performance, Schumann is reported to have said he thought it the greatest instrumental work since the death of Beethoven.

Beethoven had always used the trombone as an effect, and therefore very sparingly, or, in the case of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, also to double the alto, tenor, and bass parts of the chorus as was common in sacred music and opera at the time. However, in both Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and the Ninth Symphony, trombones are liberated from these roles and have far more substantial parts.

ThinkQuest Entry

Melody: The one element of Schubert’s style which is totally, completely distinctive and unique, is his gift for spontaneous, lyrical, charming melodic invention. His melodies include some of the most famous in all Western music, and often express tremendous joy, but can also convey dark mood swings and deep despair.

Harmony: In terms of harmonic originality, Schubert is equal, maybe even superior, to Beethoven. He often explores wildly unusual key relationships, and has a penchant for modulations into distant harmonic territory.

Form: Schubert stretched Classical sonata form to its absolute limits. His expositions usually feature a bewildering array of thematic material, presented in highly imaginative key relationships. Many works, particularly the String Quintet and the last piano sonata, anticipate Bruckner in their luxurious spaciousness of form.

Heavy Vinyl and Transparency Loss

We used to like the Speakers Corner pressing of this recording, but it has been close to ten years since we’ve played one, and I rather doubt I would feel the same way about it now. So often when we revisit the remastered records we used to like we come away dumbfounded — what on earth were we thinking? These are not the droids sounds we are looking for. Perhaps our minds were clouded at the time.

Below are some thoughts on Heavy Vinyl from a recent classical listing that may shed light on our longstanding aversion to the sound of modern remasterings. (The Commentary section has a great deal more on the subject as well.)

This original Large Tulips DG pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in a real concert hall, this is the record for you. It’s what Golden Age Classical Recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage classical recordings, the kind that are coming out from Speakers Corner just to take one example, or the ones that used to be made by Classic Records by the score, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — sometimes, not often — but new records do not, ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings? Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is TRANSPARENCY. Modern records are just so damn opaque. We can’s stand that sound. It drives us crazy. Important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found. That audiophiles as a whole — including those that pass themselves off as the champions of analog in the audio press — do not notice these failings does not speak well for either their equipment or their critical listening skills.

It is our contention that no one alive today makes records that sound as good as the ones we sell. Once you hear this Hot Stamper pressing, those 180 gram records you own may never sound right to you again. They sure don’t sound right to us, but we are in the enviable position of being able to play the best properly cleaned older pressings (reissues included) side by side with the new ones, where the faults of the current reissues become much more recognizable, even obvious. When you can hear them that way, head to head, there really is no comparison.