As Claudio Arrau clearly pointed out, "Schubert is the very last problem in interpretation", obviously referring not only to the pianistic repertoire. Arrau wanted to underline the difficulties arising from any attempt of a full comprehension and rendition of Schubert's musical thought and the consequent necessity of a deep interpretative maturity to achieve them. Schubert, as a man and as an artist, was an actual early romantic. Therefore, his vital environment is the world of sentiments, as they spring out from a pure heart.
But his music is not aimed to narrate or describe "predefined" sentiments. The music of Schubert is a narration of living moods in their continuous and unforeseeable changing and melting into each other. Surely some constant theme unifies his artistic production - the wanderer, the Sehnsucht, spontaneous joy, hopeful waiting and bitter disillusion, the loss ("Erlkönig"), the exclusion, the bitter irony ("Krähe, laß mich endlich seh'n, / Treue bis zum Grabe!"), an idealized Mediterranean zest for life, etc. - but in each composition they are continuously and differently mixed and linked together through changing nuances.
Consequently, and here lies the difficulty pointed out by Arrau, in each composition, as in each single part of it, also when a mood seems stated, at least for a while, in its depth you will find something, less or more, maybe only for a nuance, different, caused by a sudden reminiscence or by an unpredictable association of ideas. Schubert lets his different personalities to freely express their various feelings caused by the situation. Which has to be the prevailing one is not decided by a commanding ego, but, simply, it occurs and the temporarily predominant mood can not completely overshadow the others. Therefore, the interpretative problem is to deeply understand - in particular where there are no lyrics to suggest a main pattern - at every step, at every turning point: «What was he thinking to? Which were his actual feelings?».
In Schubert, the main technical tool used to achieve the musical expression of complex moods is not based on harmony, but on streams of marvelous melodies, interweaving, contrasting or singing together. But, to make all that even more difficult, the single melody is allowed to express, if handled and dug out by a fine interpreter, complex moods.
Therefore, in my opinion, the problem is not if the last symphonies are superior or greater than the earlier ones. In any case the interesting thing is that each of them narrates something about the moods of those moments or of those ages.
The first symphonies narrate of the fresh attitude of an enthusiastic, not yet disenchanted, genial teenager - obviously mature beyond his years -, attempting to apply his natural talent to express something comparable with Haydn's, Mozart's or Beethoven's (the beloved and most admired of all) heights; finally, in the last symphonies, we meet the achieved consciousness to be able to create something strongly innovative.
But this is only the general surface of the matter. Inside each work, we can find the same imprinting: a sincere narration of changing moods, from adolescence to maturity. Surely, during the "Reise", soul pain will soon become a main leitmotiv, but joined to the suggestion to plentifully live the rare moments of joy, at least till next disillusion or loss.
Indeed the deepest message is of respect and admiration for the beauty, the unicity, the miracle of human high feelings. Schubert would not exchange neither his rare joyfulness nor his constant painfulness, both generated by his extreme and noble sensitiveness, with all the well-being coming from superficiality or acceptation of conventional feelings and attitudes.
Moral pain and sincere and spontaneous joyfulness are what gives dignity and nobleness to human beings. As a matter of fact, Schubert's music is able to be highly consolatory ("One glance at Schubert's trio and the troubles of our human experiences disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again" - R. Schumann).
To have all the symphonies in an unitary collection allows us to listen to them like to a sort of cycle of complex instrumental lieder, where the linking theme is the wanderer's spiritual life of the Author himself.
Within the limits of every simplification, Mozart proposes an harmonious cosmic construction; Haydn proposes to interpret the world through the lens of intelligent fantasy, smiling and indulgent irony, joyful industriousness and sincere faith; Beethoven proposes a world of human brotherhood. Each of them tries for a rational answer to the challenging questions arising from the contradictions of human condition.
Schubert simply tells us about the man. A man, who terribly suffers from his loneliness, hiding in his heart an Utopian social project, while actual socialization implies unacceptable compromises with the insensitiveness or the evilness of the others. As the distorted and partial interpretation of the Enlightenment brought the eighteen century towards the Reign of Terror and to the Napoleonic wars, the distortion of Romantic ideals brought the nineteenth century to incarnates them in the concept of Nation and then in a degraded concept of State, which individuals are subjected to and not viceversa. There, Schubert could not be other than a rootless wanderer, allowed to be sung in the local inns or to induce little tears to drop from the "romantic" eyes of some pale dame sighing in a salon during Schubertiades, but excluded from participating to the weaving of the social fabric, as his wanderer is not admitted to the bridal chamber of the schöne Müllerin. Schubert's peaceful message had to wait for the carnage of WWI, for, among the others, Remarque, for the horrors and massacres of civilians of WWII to be given credit and to be permanently welcomed amongst universally shared values.
In conclusion, Schubert asks for versatility, sincere sensitiveness, spontaneity, extreme artistry and musicality, intellectual maturity. Colin Davis, in 1996 aged 69, is exactly the right man and the wonderful Staatskapelle Dresden, with its astonishingly colorful sonorities, vividly supports him during the "Reise", giving us a top level collection with a gorgeous sound, where the coherency and unitarity of the vision is masterfully joined to the superb interpretations of every single symphony.
The Ninth too may be rated as one of the best ever recorded. Here Davis does not incur in the frequent error of weighting it down to gain "profundity" or to fasten tempos to easily gain superficial "brilliancy". The typical heavenly lightness of Schubert's melody-based harmonic structure is attentively preserved, every rhetorical temptation cleverly avoided.
The result is a sincere and moving narration of the whole sentimental life of Schubert himself, the good and sensitive excluded man, and, by doing so, his peaceful and consolatory message springs out simply and naturally, without the superimposition of any intellectualistic or rhetorical artifice, exactly as the Melody Master deserves.
The packaging of the 4 CDs in single envelopes in a cardboard box and the symphonies allocation to them (1-3-8) (2-4) (5-6) (9) are more than adequate for a low-priced edition. The booklet supplies basic, but not shallow information, in English, German and French.