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Completing the Incomplete

February 19, 2008

Ever since Beethoven raised the genre of symphony to the pinnacle of achievement in Western art music, there have been composers whose efforts to write symphonies have been left incomplete. Something about the task was just too daunting for them. But finished works have been made out of these pieces, one way or another, and the Russian National Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski played two of these works at Davies Symphony Hall last Thursday, on the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series.
Franz Schubert already had under his belt six completed symphonies — mostly in a light, charming Haydnesque style — when he decided at the age of 25 that the day of the charming Haydnesque symphony was over and it was time to get with the Beethoven program. (By this time Beethoven, who hadn't finished any symphonies back when he was 25, had published eight of unprecedented might and power.)

Only a few years later Schubert would master the form with his relaxed but world-spanning "Great C-Major," yet here in 1822 he got stuck. He wrote and fully orchestrated the first two movements of a huge, astonishingly dark and brooding symphony in B minor, and he drafted, with only a few bars of orchestration, most of a third movement Scherzo. But then he stopped. Why?
Impersonating the Master
Some listeners claim that what has long been known as Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony is complete and sublime with just the two movements. To my ear, the proposition is absurd. The Andante con moto second movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" is in E major, a key that simply begs to resolve harmonically back to B minor. No Classical era composer could have left it at that and considered it done. I can never hear the "Unfinished" without a regretful thought at the end of "Well? And what comes next?"

But what, if anything, can we do about it? If Schubert couldn't finish his symphony, how can anyone else have the nerve to do so? Various enterprising musicologists have tried anyway, but none of their attempts has entered the repertoire. Now it's the turn of Anton Safronov, a 35-year-old Russian composer who teaches at the Moscow Conservatory. He's orchestrated and slightly elaborated the draft Scherzo, as well as concocted a finale out of thematic material from some of Schubert's piano pieces. When Jurowski closed the Schubert score on the podium and held up his hand for continued attention, this is what the orchestra played.

I hesitate to call Safronov's work dull or uninspired, but it does have to go up against Schubert. Even the Schubert thematic material is not of the best — this is one theory as to why he abandoned the Scherzo — and its treatment drags. There's too much repetition and not enough imagination. At least the orchestration sounds Schubertian, though, if Schubert had actually written it, there are places where I'd say he was copying Beethoven, and others where he'd seem to be waiting for Arthur Sullivan or Niels Gade to copy him.

Safronov has opted for a heavy instrumentation with lots of tuttis and much work for the timpani. He's best when he gets away from that — there are some charming bars with flute and oboe playing together, and the quiet return of the Scherzo's trio as a coda to the movement (this is not in Schubert's draft) works well. But Safronov sometimes follows Schubert too closely, adding a moment in the trio that sounds like the accompaniment to the first movement's cello theme (this isn't in the draft either), and duplicating the close of the first movement at the end of the finale. Schubert didn't repeat himself this way.
Incomplete in Another Form
Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, played next on the program, is also an unfinished symphony. It contains most of the remains of an attempted work in the form that the young composer had been struggling with for the previous few years. That grand Maestoso opening, with its grotesque and frightening trills and its long timpani rolls, isn't merely a typical concerto orchestral tutti. It's Brahms standing up in the shadow of Beethoven and declaring himself as a symphonist.

For the most part, though, you wouldn't know that from this performance, which had Stephen Hough as the pianist. Hough, wearing simple black except for the ruby slippers on his feet, gave a masterfully controlled performance, playing in a clean yet smooth manner, not overly crisp. His shaping of melodic phrases and gentle rolling of chords were most attractive, and cast a clear, lyrical air over this clotted, rock-hard concerto.

Although the Adagio was not played too slowly, some of the phrasing got lost in the gentility, but the outer movements came across as delightfully perky rather than stormy. You wouldn't guess that the composer had been going through the personal difficulties that Larry Rothe's inappropriately lurid program notes wallow in. (May we please have done with prurient articles about Brahms that feel required to speculate on Robert and Clara Schumann's sex life?)

The orchestra deserves full credit for coauthorship of Hough's effort to civilize the music. The piquant oboes (Olga Tomilova, principal) were a particular delight. The playing was less than perfect, but this was more noticeable in the Schubert, where a reduced orchestra was used. The phrasing was often inconsistently short-winded, emphasizing staccato and sforzando notes.

A few out-of-tune moments were unfortunate from an orchestra that generally controls its sound well. There were also some balance problems. The timpani were alarmingly loud. The violins played strongly, but the cellos, placed in the center, sounded weak, at least back in the first balcony where I was seated.

In the end, it was worthwhile venturing out on Valentine's evening to find out what Safronov had to say about Schubert, and to see Stephen Hough play Brahms in his ruby slippers.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.