Schubert – Complete Symphonies. Anima Eterna, cond Jos Van Immerseel. Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 308 (4 CDs: 252’ 56”)


If one of the objects of musical performance is to make us think afresh about music with which we think we are familiar, then Jos Van Immerseel’s set of Schubert symphonies must be accounted a triumph. His recordings are not new, having originally been issued by Sony to celebrate the Schubert bicentenary in 1997; as such they were the first to draw upon the then incomplete New Schubert Edition. The present reissue comes with a fresh English translation of a 20-page essay by Van Immerseel explaining the rationale behind his revelatory approach. It makes for essential reading, proving beyond any doubt the thought and experimentation that went into producing the finished performances. Likely to be one of Van Immerseel’s more controversial topics is his contention that the correct tempos can be found within the music and are not a subjective matter. Nowhere does he put this into greater practical perspective than in the ‘Great’ C-major, where by taking the opening at a true Andante rather than some kind of inflated portent for what is to come, Van Immerseel makes the transition to the Allegro (one of music’s most awkward moments) sound a seamlessly inevitable continuation. Much the same thing happens in the Scherzo, where there is no exaggerated slowing down for the central Trio, thus leaving it to take its place as a delightfully fresh episode within the movement. Van Immerseel’s refusal to be distracted into making uncalled for changes of tempo also pays dividends in the Andante of the ‘Unfinished’, where the ‘con moto’ is observed from the start, leaving the second idea to sound particularly felicitous: a briskish walk, but one not too hurried to miss out on the surrounding beauties.

These are not performances likely to find favour with Schubertians who want to caress and love the composer à la Beecham or possibly even Minkowski, whose new fine set was issued recently. Van Immerseel’s Schubert is a more resilient, tougher character, displaying a leanness that allows for not an ounce of flab. It is often said that Schubert’s earlier symphonies follow Classical models. Paradoxically, the sound world Van Immerseel produces sounds far more Romantic, the decision to use a pitch of A=440 (rather than the 430 adopted by most period instrument groups) frequently giving his splendid Harmonie band a kind translucent radiance – Caspar David Friedrich in music. In Van Immerseel’s hands the powerful development of the Allegro of the ‘Unfinished’ does not emulate Minkowski’s great tragic statement; rather it is a Fusellian nightmare writ large. There is so much more that might be written in detail about these remarkable performances: the exceptional clarity with which part writing is exposed, the fresh colours achieved by the near-perfection of the instrumental balance, and the unusually acute observation of the huge range of dynamics. Zig-Zag Territoires deserve profound thanks for restoring these recordings to the catalogue, for they deserve a place in the collection of anyone who loves and thinks he or she knows Schubert. And that means you, surely?