Schubert [8 CD]
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Schubert: Symphony No.8 "Unfinished"; Grand Duo
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Audio CD, Box set, July 31, 2015
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Capbox, 8 CDs. Released as part of the recent Abbado box set series, this encompasses Abbado's complete Schubert recordings on DG and includes the Symphonies, Grand Duo, the incidental music to ,Rosamunde" and sacred music - the "Tantum ergo," Psalm 23 "Gott meine Zuversicht," two masses (No.6 in E flat, D.950 & No.2 in G, D.167) - and the Grammy Award-winning recordings of "Lieder with Orchestra" with Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff.
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Why did Schubert leave these two tremendous movements of his B minor Symphony incomplete? Actually, he worked on a scherzo, but left it incomplete, orchestrating about half (up to the Trio) and leaving the rest in piano score. There used to be a recording in the 60s of exactly what Schubert left, the usual two movements, with the scherzo, the orchestration ending abruptly, followed by the piano sketches for the rest. I don't recall the conductor, but I think the orchestra was the Vienna New Symphony conducted by Max Goberman, on Columbia's budget label Odyssey. This is, as far as I know, out of print.
At any rate, we now have the perfectly good completions of various unfinished orchestral scores of Schubert ( he left several fragments of projected symphonic, chamber, and piano works) published by Dr. Brian Newbould, and we can point out the recording by Neville Marriner of the finished version of the "Unfinished," on Phillips as the most noteworthy of these.
However, this still doesn't quite give us exactly what Schubert wrote in the works and portions of works he did complete. Brahms and other well-meaning editors are responsible for the versions of Schubert's symphonic output we're all familiar with, but this is NOT the last word. Enter Claudio Abbado in the 1980s, and Nikolas Harnoncourt in the 90s. First Abbado, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on DG (reviewed here), and then Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Teldec, both made the first recordings of Schubert's Symphonies as he wrote them.
In the case of the present work, the Symphony in B Minor, recorded by Abbado and the COE, we get a first movement which seems to be the same as ever, but only up to the repeat of the exposition; thereafter, things are different. The famous tremelando chords are repeated (Abbado takes all of Schubert's repeats, to satisfying effect), and unfamiliar harmonies and inner details of trumpet and winds may surprise the most veteran of listeners. The second movement is less surprising, but equally compelling. We seem to be in a different world from that we usually see as Schubert's. There is the Alpine depth and nostalgia (with Mahler just "off stage"), but from a different perspective. The excellent, smaller forces gives us a view of inner lines usually not heard or not much noticed. Abbado is, as always in this series of Schubert Symphonies, masterly, allowing the music to speak for itself, much as Szell did in his classic recording of Nos. 8 & 9.
The "Grand Duo," actually a sonata for one piano, four hands (two players), is an orchestration by Brahms' and Schumann's friend and colleague Joseph Joachim. He did an excellent job, bringing out what Schumann saw as a "hidden symphony," and this is an excellent performance, easily the best of the work in orchestral score, and one of the best versions overall, equaling the splendid performance of Radu Lupu and Daniel Baremboim on Teldec.
So, why did Schubert leave his great B Minor Symphony unfinished? Perhaps we'll never know exactly, but there are intriguing theories mentioned in the notes for this recording as well as in Dr. Newbould's book Schubert: the Music and the Man. We'll leave it at that. See the review of the complete recording of Schubert's Symphonies on DG.
Finally, the most radical version of the B Minor would consist of the first two movements done by Abbado, followed by the scherzo done by Marriner,with the possible finale played by Abbado, from his "Rosamunde" with the COE on DG.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he left behind five unfinished symphonies and one Unfinished Symphony. The other five, including two (No. 7 and No. 10) which are counted among his numbered symphonies, are of little interest except to historians, biographers and musicologists. The Unfinished Symphony, No. 8 in B minor, D.759, has long been among his most popular works, and one of the factors contributing to its popularity is the mystery of why it was never completed. In Clive Brown’s sleeve notes he speculates that the reason may be connected to the fact that it was while he was working on this symphony that Schubert was first diagnosed with the syphilis which was eventually to kill him.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility (although it may be beyond those of probability) that we will one day come across a hitherto undiscovered letter from Schubert to a friend along the lines of “Dear Hans, I have decided not to complete my B minor symphony which we were discussing the last time we met, and as I know that you will be disappointed by this news I thought that I should let you know my reasons…..” In the absence of any such evidence, however, we are unlikely ever to know whether Brown’s theory is the correct one. It does, however, seem to me psychologically plausible that, following such a traumatic event in his life, Schubert may not have wanted to carry on with a work which has always struck me as a melancholy one.
This note of melancholy is particularly prominent in the first of the two completed movements, with its muted, mysterious opening and its haunting, plaintive and questioning first subject. The lyrical second subject might seem like the perfect answer to the question posed by the first, but whenever this theme reappears throughout the movement it is normally interrupted by loud, dissonant chords, reintroducing a note of foreboding. The second movement, overall, is calmer, but even here the more tranquil mood is interrupted by louder and more threatening passages.
If the question of why Schubert left the "Unfinished Symphony" unfinished is the greatest mystery associated with it, the second-greatest is the (equally unanswerable) question of how he intended to finish it. We know that he sketched out most of the third movement in piano score, but only orchestrated the first two pages. What we do not know is what he intended for the fourth movement, although there have been a number of theories. If his intention was to turn this into a “triumph over fate” symphony, with a triumphant final movement dispelling the doubts and questions of the first, along the lines of Beethoven’s Fifth, I could well understand why, following the trauma referred to above, he decided not to proceed.
There are many versions of the Unfinished on CD out there, and I chose this one not because of any specific recommendation (when it comes to Classical recordings one man’s meat is often another man’s poison) and not because of the identity of the conductor (although Claudio Abbado was of course a very fine musician). I chose it because it gave me a chance to hear the rarity it is paired with. Besides the seven finished and six unfinished symphonies mentioned above, there have often been rumours of “lost” Schubert symphonies such as the so-called “Gastein Symphony”, named after the town where it was supposedly written. After Schubert's death the rumour got around that his Grand Duo, D 812, was in fact a transcription or draft of the supposed Gastein Symphony.
There is no evidence that the Gastein symphony was ever written, or that Schubert ever intended the Grand Duo to be anything other than a piano sonata for four hands, the form in which it was published and in which it is most often heard today. The idea that it was a lost symphony in disguise, however, attracted some eminent supporters, among them Robert Schumann. He persuaded his friend Joseph Joachim to orchestrate the work as a symphony, and it is this orchestration, written in 1855, which we hear here.
The Grand Duo does indeed resemble a symphony in its structure, and Joachim’s work does, for most of its length at least, sound like a symphony. It just doesn’t sound like a Schubert symphony. It is much more Late Romantic in sound, and parts of it, especially during the first two movements, sound as though they could have been written by Joachim’s other great friend Johannes Brahms, even though in 1855 Brahms was still in his early twenties and would not produce a symphony of his own until the 1870s. The explosive scherzo almost sounds as though it could be by Dvorak. Only the final movement, which betrays its origin as a piano piece, does not really sound symphonic. As I said, I was glad of a chance to hear this work, but it will never be much more than a curiosity. Joachim never wrote a symphony of his own, but perhaps this one should be known as “Joachim’s Symphony on themes by Schubert”.
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Very intriguingly the other work on the disc is Joachim's orchestration of the Grand Duo. Apparently Schumann first posited the idea that this was a symphony in disguise though there is no evidence that Schubert intended this as anything other than the published piano duo (although he described it as a sonata rather than Diabelli's styling as a Grand Duo). Happily enough it sounds very attractive as an Early Romantic symphony with occasional splashes of Brahms (Joachim's friend) in the orchestration.