Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sunday Classics: Can't we hear the leap Schubert made in the "Unfinished" Symphony?


Violinist-conductor Sándor Végh and the Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum take us through Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

by Ken

In Friday night's preview, I mentioned the wrinkle in the now generally accepted numbering of Schubert's eight symphonies: that there is no No. 7, and so we know the seventh and eighth symphonies as Nos. 8 and 9. As I noted, once upon a time it was believed there was a "missing" symphony, and a big and important one, between what we have come to know as Nos. 6 and 8 with attendant speculation about what it was and where might happened to it.

Now it's quite possible that Schubert contemplated writing a symphony between Nos. 6 and 8. Probably he contemplated a whole bunch of symphonies. Like most of us, he was a big-time contemplator. He went further, abandoning an astonishing number of works that had gone beyond contemplation to composition, often with whole movements, even several of them, completed before he simply abandoned them, without explanation.

I still have a fair amount of yammering to do before we get to hearing any of the Unfinished Symphony, and you would rather hear music. Well, we have unfinished business of our own in the form of the three symphonies we've sampled: Friday night the first movement of No. 2 and the second movement of No. 6, and last night the first two movements of No. 5.

For variety, we're going to flip-flop our performances of Nos. 2 and 6: Sir Charles Groves instead of Otmar Suitner in No. 2, vice versa in No. 6.

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, D. 125:
i. Largo; Allegro vivace
ii. Andante
iii. Menuetto: Allegro vivace
iv. Presto vivace

English Sinfonia, Sir Charles Groves, cond. IMP, recorded March 1991

Schubert's habit of abandoning substantially composed works -- often after taking them even farther than the music world's next-best-known serial abandoner, Claude Debussy -- has proved a source of limitless exasperation to succeeding generations that, since his untimely death at age 31 (see the January 2009 post asking "How did so much music of such beauty come from one mind, and in such a tragically short time?"), have been understandably given to Schubert worship. (There's an irony in this veneration, given that its object, our first true professional composer, died in poverty. He had achieved a certain recognition, but it was hardly commensurate with his eventual reckoning as one of the supreme creative imaginers in the documented history of the human race. It's not an entertaining irony, however, and I don't think we're going to go there.)

How dare the master, posterity has seemed to say, just abandon all those tantalizing musical hulks, some of them filled with music that is manifestly wonderful? What a gyp!

There may have been special circumstances in the case of each such abandonment, but the general answer seems to have been that the composer decided, "Nah, I don't think so," and moved on to other projects.

I'm assuming, or at least hoping, that you'll want to hear more of the performance of this symphony (of which we heard the first half last night) from Günter Wand's final concerts, in late October 2001. Here's the whole thing.

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D. 485:
i. Allegro
ii. Andante con moto
iii. Menuetto: Allegro molto
iv. Allegro vivace

North German Radio (NDR) Symphony Orchestra, Günter Wand, cond. BMG, recorded live, Oct. 28-30, 2001

We do have, as I mentioned, sketches for the start of what was intended to be a third-movement Scherzo for the B minor Symphony we know as the Unfinished. We don't know why Schubert abandoned the project, though we do know that it wasn't because -- as in the case of, say, Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony -- he died, because he did go on to compose the whole of the sublime "Great C major" Symphony. I don't know that there's any more explanation, or any more explanation needed, than that he just had no more music to add to the two completed movements of the B minor symphony, and a headful of ideas bubbling to be channeled into, hmm, how about a C major one?

Whatever Schubert may have thought about those two left-behind movements (and as far as I know, we don't know what he thought about them), music-lovers have hardly felt deprived in the hearing of the truncated symphony they form. And at this point we need to go back to that mysterious gap between the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies.

Shouldn't we wonder why it was so easy to believe that there was a somehow-lost symphony in between them? And a pretty big, ground-breaking one at that. Isn't it clear that we perceive a gulf between the symphonies we know?

Once again, after hearing Sir Charles Grove's second movement on Friday, now we hear the whole symphony as conducted by Otmar Suitner. Note the first appearance in a Schubert symphony of a scherzo in place of a menuetto.

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 6 in C, D. 589:
i. Adagio; Allegro
ii. Andante
iii. Scherzo: Presto
iv. Allegro moderato

Staatskapelle Berlin, Otmar Suitner, cond. Denon, recorded June 23-26, 1986

Maybe what we have isn't so much a gulf as a leap, the very sort of leap to which creative geniuses are prone, when stuff just comes together in their heads.

With Symphony No. 6 still fresh in our ears, let's listen just to the opening of our No. 8. I had the bright idea of making a clip of just the introduction, leading into The Tune (taught by professional Musical Appreciators to generations through my mother's with the words: "This is the symphony that Schubert wrote but did not finish"). I realized, unfortunately, that the editing software I use (sort of) won't open a file as long as the whole movement, so instead I'll suggest you listen to just the first minute and a half of this clip.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished):
i. Allegro moderato

Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Capriccio, recorded live, Feb. 25 and 27, 1994
[0:00] cellos and basses sound a mysterious, questioning theme (8 bars)
[0:19] violins enter with a scurrying stuttering-16th-note figure, over pizzicato in the rest of the strings, at first seeming to rise toward, well, something for 2 bars, then droppng back to where it was and starting over, for another 2 bars, until
[0:26] at bar 13 the string chattering turns out to be an accompaniment for and oddly questioning, possibly mournful theme sounded in unison by the 1st oboe and 1st clarinet (a very odd-sounding combination -- it's not easy to pick out what exactly the instrumentation is), which in the 8th bar is punctuated by a sharp, then retreating outburst from the two horns, two bassons, and bass trombone, and then sure enough --
[0:43] they do sort of the same thing again, though not quite the same, and after 4 bars --
[0:50] begins building toward a climax, finally arriving at --
[1:08] involving the full orchestra (including, finally, the timpani), except the three trombones, which shortly thereafter add their voices to the gathering storm, out of which --
[1:13] the wonderful combination of the paired horns and bassoons mellows the proceedings, setting the stage for --
[1:20] 2 bars of an oddly off-the beat rhythmic figuration, with the downbeats sounded by pizzicato double basses and the syncopated accompaniment figure sounded by the curious combination of the two clarinets and the violas, until --
[1:24] the cellos, over that same continued rhythmic figuration (plucked double basses on the downbeats, clarinets and violas manning the syncopated accompaniment) finally sing The Tune, whose "normal" 8 bars are stretched out to 9 to prepared for --
[1:41] the takeover of The Tune by the 1st and 2nd violins, an octave apart, with horns and bassoons now joining the syncopated accompaniment figure
The net effect, it seemed to me as I was getting to know this music, was a special and wonderful adventure in mysteriousness, or rather mysteriousnesses -- a tiny chunk of music that proceeds in what seem to be the most "normal" musical units (note all those 4- and 8-bar chunks), and always seems to be signaling where it's headed, but constantly winds up somewhere else.

I can't define for you the leap that Schubert made in this symphony. The obvious thing to say is that it's written on a larger scale, and in some sense it is, but it's not strictly speaking a matter of length. For example, the opening movement of No. 2 runs 14-minutes-plus and 15-minutes-plus in our two performances; the opening movement of the Unfinished runs 14-minutes-plus and 15-minutes-plus in our two movements. Similarly, the slow movements of Nos. 2, 5, and 6 fall right around the 10-minute mark, pretty close to the framework of the Unfinished's.

Still, isn't it clearly audible just from these opening couple of minutes that something different is happening in the Unfinished? We've heard three of the earlier Schubert symphonies, and they're wonderful works all. Yet isn't it already plain that the Unfinished is taking us into a different imaginative world?

I should also point out that what I've been calling another of Schubert's much-loved "slow introductions" to a symphonic first movement really isn't either slow or an introduction. The tempo marking "allegro moderato" refers to the whole movement; as much as the music seems to change when the stage is set by the horns and bassoons, and then the double basses, clarinets, and violas, for The Tune, there is no tempo change whatsoever indicated (doesn't it seem to change, though?). What's more, the "introduction" turns out to be clearly part of the official "exposition" of the movement. Notably, it will quite explicitly and dramatically sound the "recapitulation" section of the movement.

I think even less needs to be said about the gorgeously singing second movement. In fact, I don't think I'm going to say anything, except perhaps to note the "con moto" ("with movement") in the tempo marking. The first movement had its "allegro" tempo "moderated" ("allegro moderato"), and now the second movement has its "andante" tempo given just a bit of a nudge. (As we'll see in a moment, he did the exact same thing with the first two movements -- substituting "non troppo," "not too much," for "moderato" -- of the Ninth Symphony.) Anyway, let's just listen to it.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished):
ii. Andante con moto

Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Capriccio, recorded live, Feb. 25 and 27, 1994

I should say that I had good reason for choosing this performance, conducted by Sándor Végh (1912-1997), probably better known to most music-lovers as a violinist and one of the great chamber musicians of the 20th century -- first with the celebrated Hungarian Quartet and then, from 1940 and for the next 30-plus years, the first violinist of the great Végh Quartet, and also a much-favored chamber colleague of the likes of the great cellist-conductor Pablo Casals.

A couple of years ago it dawned on me that it had been an awfully long time since I'd had that sense of breathless mystery in the opening of the Unfinished. I went through performances by legions of great conductors, many of them musicians for whom I have the highest regard, and that opening minute and a half was sanely and soberly dispatched, and that was about it. I gave up the search, pretty discouraged, and then one day happened to put on the performance in the Decca Schubert symphony cycle of István Kertész, and suddenly, voilà! More recently I happened to stumble across this Capriccio coupling of live Végh-conducted performances of the Unfinished and Schubert Ninth Symphonies. At $5, it exceeded my powers of resistance (which aren't all that strong to begin with). I like it so much that in a moment we're going to hear a bit of the Ninth Symphony as well.

I assume it's just a coincidence that the magic of this music is captured by two Hungarian conductors. In any case, I thought you might enjoy hearing the Kertész Unfinished.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)

i. Allegro moderato
ii. Andante con moto

Vienna Philharmonic, István Kertész, cond. Decca, recorded November 1963

Finally, as promised, I'm going to tantalize you with half of the "Great C major" Symphony. Since we've been focusing on Schubertian first and second movements, that's what we're going to hear. I'm not going to say much more than that we're clearly in that opened-up imaginative world that Schubert had opened up in the Unfinished, only moreso. The symphony as a whole is one of the glories of the repertory, and one of the great challenges for any conductor with pretensions to seriousness. Note that this first movement clearly does have a "slow introduction," lasting almost a full four minutes in our performance, and it's one of the most beautiful spans of music I know.
SCHUBERT: from Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944

i. Andante; Allegro non troppo

ii. Andante con moto
Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Capriccio, recorded live, March 26 and 28, 1993


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