The older I get, the more I'm convinced that, when it comes to the great Austro-German symphonies, safe hands are better than flailing arms. You need clear-headed engagement, knowledge of structure and a sense of stylistic rightness that usually come only with long experience. Take the late Günter Wand (pictured). When on form he could galvanise his players, though his motive was always musical, never ego-centred. Wand's newly-reissued Bruckner, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert symphony cycles for RCA are models of strong though tempered interpretation, the sort you can happily live with, go back to after the lure of others' relative flamboyance has worn off. They're bargains to savour.
The 1970s-1980s Schubert cycle is possibly my own favourite, culminating as it does in a blazing account of the "Great" C major Symphony. Listen to how Wand builds the introduction (the brass really tells) then, come the main allegro, broadens early enough for the closing pages to make a clinching dramatic gesture. Wand's speeds are always well-judged: in the underrated "Tragic", which has genuine gravitas but never sounds portentous. The Fifth is imaginatively articulated (try the start of the Menuetto), the Sixth a blend of gracefulness and high spirits. The early symphonies, too, are vital but always sensitive. Schubert is honoured man and boy, never the one imposing on the other, and there's always the feeling that the players are consistently listening to each other.
Sadly, Wand never recorded much Haydn, though the six "Paris" Symphonies are currently out on special offer from Menuhin, Marriner, Kuijken, Karajan, Dorati, Brüggen and Bernstein. And yet the best is about to arrive from Decca – Ernest Ansermet's 1962 set with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Unlikely? Well, I thought so too until I actually heard them and, again, it's a question of superior musical judgement. Lightness, for one, that never passes over into skittish understatement. Ansermet can subtly vary the pulse, as he does for the clucking second subject in the first movement of "The Hen". He really makes you smile, as does the bass drone in the finale of "The Bear" and the excited brio of No 84's first movement allegro. There's wit, panache, warmth, spontaneity and (as ever with this mathematician-conductor) an abundance of clarity. As to the orchestra, it's not half bad, save for an occasionally sour lead oboe.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos 1-6, 8-9; 'Rosamunde' Suite – Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand (RCA 09026 63940 2, five discs)
Haydn: Six 'Paris' Symphonies – L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (Decca 470 062-2, two discs)Reuse content