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Schubert: Symphony No. 7 ‘Unfinished’ etc (Basel/Holliger)

Basel Chamber Orchestra/Heinz Holliger (Sony Classical)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Symphony No. 7 ‘Unfinished’; Andante in B minor, D936a (arr. Moser); Deutsche Tänze, D820 (arr. Webern) etc
Basel Chamber Orchestra/Heinz Holliger
Sony Classical 19075814432   60:38 mins

In this closing instalment of his Schubert cycle with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, Heinz Holliger has devised a programme around the ever-enigmatic ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (widely known as No. 8, but renumbered No. 7 by the Deutsch catalogue). The work’s sense of presenting an unanswered question has here been opened out into a broader meditation on death, which for the composer was only days away when he sketched an incomplete Andante movement, seemingly intended for another symphony in B minor; Roland Moser’s arrangement of this retains the music’s undeveloped spareness, so that it provides an open-ended, bleakly atmospheric introduction to the ‘Unfinished’.

Holliger’s approach to this haunting masterwork itself is thoughtfully and beautifully paced, with the period-style reduced vibrato on the strings not overdone, and featuring solo woodwind playing of much loveliness. Next comes a flashback to the funeral march composed by the teenage Schubert (notionally for himself?) – in the ultra-dark tonality of E flat minor, and scored for just nine wind instruments (including contra-bassoon) in a way that has this small group sounding remarkably imposing. Moser’s idea of extending the music in his own work Echoraum (‘Echo-Space’) is a fair enough idea in principle, but the result fails to convince: those smeared glissando slides on the added stringed instruments sound like grotesque parody, however much intended otherwise. Fortunately Webern’s deftly idiomatic orchestration of the set of German Dances for piano (undiscovered until 1931) provide a winsome finale, with playing of a precision and charm to match.

Malcolm Hayes