In the closing week of the Edinburgh Festival, five of Schubert's nine symphonies were heard. The prize of playing numbers Eight and Nine, the Unfinished and the Great C major, went to the NDR Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg under Wand. It was immediately apparent that this orchestra is less at ease than we remember from last year. The velvety strings and warm, solemn brass are still evident, but the woodwind section seems to have disintegrated into a bundle of conflicting personalities; their ensemble often sounds like stringy beans, with a wobbly and plangent oboe standing out.
Wand is famous for his scrupulous rehearsing, but for once the players did not sound quite at home with his constant shifts of tempo, pulling back in the decrescendos and hurrying forward in the tunes; this was the kind of thing that went out with Karl Bohm. What was meant to sound like a personal insight into Schubert came across as mere mannerism.
The tiny Salzburg orchestra, however, sounded punctual, pointed, witty, elegant, precise, enormously sophisticated. Individualists were not encouraged; the flutes were just a glint on the top of the exquisitely refined tutti, the clarinet a self-effacing echo in the first movement of the Third Symphony. Vegh must be a careful rehearser too, for the veteran maestro contributes very little to the performance; seated on a stool and gesturing at waist level, his movements are apparently visible only to the front row of the band and you notice principals of sections nodding and swooping like chamber musicians in order to keep things together.
Occasionally the style was so cool you almost longed for a bit of self- indulgence. The Second Symphony, in which the 17-year-old Schubert was already a brilliant show-off, sounded merely polished and cellophane- wrapped, and Mozart's last piano concerto, K 595, was played by Alfred Brendel with the urbanity and good form of a lofty grandee. The tempos were deliberately modest and the passagework creamy, but the cream was straight out of the fridge.
You saw the point of Vegh's restraint in the Sixth Symphony, the Little C major, in which the composer, now one year older, was thoroughly mature. The textures were full of a kind of jocund excitement and a sweet delight, the changing lights and colours of Schubert's harmony glancing through the orchestra, the rhythm balanced with total precision in the Scherzo.
Although there was no intrusive button-holing in the changing scenes of the finale, the passage from confidential intimacy to military splendour and darksome drama was clear and enthralling, and somehow the storyteller was never Vegh or any of his musicians, but the young boy who wrote the score two years after Waterloo.
n Wand conducts Bruckner at the Proms: Sat 7.30pm RAH (0171-589 8212) and live on R3Reuse content