The best recordings of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony
We explore the finest versions of Schubert's two-movement masterpiece, known as his 'Unfinished' Symphony
Schubert's darkly disturbing 'Unfinished' Eighth Symphony is a work that, as its nickname implies, continues to attract its share of conspiracy theorists.
The Austrian composed his B minor Symphony in 1822 and presented it to Anselm Hüttenbrenner for the musical society in Graz. Mysteriously, Hüttenbrenner only revealed it – the first two movements and the unfinished scherzo – at the end of his life.
It was not performed until 1865, turning out to be further ahead of its time than anything that had been written meanwhile. But being born, as it were, into a later era, it was treated to the musical manners of the Romantics and misunderstood. So it remained until the last 25 years or so.
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It is not the sentimental journey so often heard, but Schubert’s dark night of the soul, in which the tragic chase of the first movement (echoing his song Der Erlkönig, in which the child’s harried calls to his father in plaintive minor ninths are recalled during the first subject) is countered by the second movement’s serenity in the face of disaster.
The best recording of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony
Roger Norrington (conductor)
London Classical Players (1990)
Virgin 562 2272
The disaster alluded to in the ‘Unfinished’ was Schubert’s discovery that he had contracted syphilis. Sir Roger Norrington’s epoch-making 1990 recording gets the point completely. His is not a comfortable reading – but then it is not a comfortable symphony.
He sticks to Schubert’s markings, maintains the lyrical continuity through the textural contrasts, not imposing unmarked tempo changes and observing only those pauses and slowings-down which Schubert composes in at pivotal points – such as the long held horn note between first and second subjects, and the suspended single string notes in the second movement.
Norrington’s attention to detail is phenomenal, particularly in the second movement when even the big second subject repeat in the bass is subtly phrased. You may gasp at his speeds or chafe at the hair-shirt sound-quality of the period instruments, but this is a brilliant attempt to realise the spirit of the composer. Schubert was going through a bleak period, and bleakness is very much part of the character of the work.
That said, many conductors mistakenly seem to hear Mahlerian ‘leb-wohl’s (‘goodbye’) in the dying fall of the cadences at the end of both movements. But it is not a swansong, and Norrington and his London Classical Players have evidently grasped that too.
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Three more great recordings of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony
Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra (2010)
BIS SACD 1656
Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra are even faster than Norrington. Their reading is more hectic and tragic, as far away from the Romantic reverie we usually hear as its possible to imagine – it’s troubled and urgent.
The first movement is a haunted scamper, an unstoppable rush, with a climax that is a nightmare of alienation – after the mighty unison thunderbolts, the woodwind syncopations sound like terrified heartbeats. Dausgaard sticks strictly to the tempo without any slowing down or speeding up, and in the second movement the woodwind choir shape their chorus beautifully.
All this is caught with a wonderfully immediate lively recorded balance with a vital contemporary feel.
Jos van Immerseel (conductor)
Anima Aeterna Brugge (1997)
Jos van Immerseel’s performance with Anima Aeterna Brugge is part of a complete Schubert cycle, calling on the latest scholarship and closest possible attention to the original scores, and sourcing the correct instruments.
It has a lot to commend it, including the detailed accompanying sleevenotes – though unaccountably for a complete cycle, it does not include the incomplete scherzo.
Van Immerseel doesn’t pull the tempos around like most conductors but concentrates on the dynamics. If there is one reservation, it is that the syncopated woodwind chords in the second subject are so slurred that they almost sound like one note, whereas Schubert has gone to the trouble of putting dots separating each one. It is, though, very scholarly and interesting.
Charles Mackerras (conductor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (2000)
Virgin 561 8062
What about a finished ‘Unfinished’? When Hüttenbrenner revealed the miracle that he’d been hiding for over 30 years, some pages were missing, the scherzo incomplete, and there was no finale to be found. But did Schubert finish it? He may well have done.
Many people write off the fragmentary scherzo as not worthy of the first two movements – but it is just as original, a new type of post-Beethovenian scherzo. As for the missing finale, it might be that Schubert lifted it for the first entr’acte of the Rosamunde incidental music he produced at the end of 1823.
This is how the scholar Brian Newbould produced his completed version – a version that Sir Charles Mackerras and the OAE recorded in 2000, getting close to the ideal soundworld as they did so.
And one to avoid
Sergiu Celibidache’s remastered live performance with the Allessandri Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples in 1958 does him no credit. You can hear what he is trying to do, but a very noisy ambient atmosphere disguises some very bad orchestral playing, shrill and out of tune.
Celibidache’s proverbial snail-like tempi, not unusual in many other performances, sound as thought they are going to fall of the sick bed. There are other Celibidache recordings, if you are a fan, so avoid this one.
Read more about Schubert and his work here
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.