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Despite having no final movement, this mysterious work never fails to capture the imaginations of the very best maestros and orchestras.
Naturally, there has been endless debate as it why Schubert never completed his celebrated Eighth Symphony, but it seems that the Austrian composer took the answer to his grave. He actually began composing it in September 1822 and after completing the first two movements in October he abandoned the project, leaving only a nearly finished piano score and two orchestrated pages of a scherzo.
One plausible non-musical explanation for this premature ending was that in November of that year he contracted syphilis and with the timing so intrinsically linked to the composition of this work, his state of mind rendered him unable to complete it.
In fact, he passed the manuscript to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner in whose hands it remained until December 1865, when he was persuaded to relinquish it for its first performance in Vienna, 37 years after the composer’s death.
Many well-known conductors have recorded their thoughts on this orchestral masterpiece and although there are a number no longer available, our five contenders here are of the highest order.
The supremely polished account by Herbert von Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic begins our journey. It’s a performance of epic proportions, albeit perhaps a tad overblown – but one could say it’s a case of never mind the width, hear the quality!
Something that Georg Solti’s reading from Vienna has in abundance; from the grumbling cellos and basses at the opening to the opulent woodwinds in the second movement, this smacks of class. It is suitably intense, but maybe the end result is rather ponderous and too controlled.
This cannot be said of Carlos Kleiber’s take, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, in which this relatively under-recorded conductor produces something of a thriller. His is a much more purposeful first movement that may take some listeners by surprise, but no one can doubt its excitement.
One notch down on the gas is Claudio Abbado with the somewhat leaner Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It’s a compelling reading in which the Italian conductor simply allows the music to speak for itself. Tempi are well judged – a good example being the start of the second movement where the gentle lilt is especially impressive.
Dynamics are well executed, an area in which Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra also excel. This live recording faithfully captures their renowned sound and the perceived spontaneity of the interpretation is one of its many virtues.
A stellar roster of maestros then, but the one which just about has the perfect finish of the Unfinished is that of Claudio Abbado.
THE RECORDING TO OWN
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado
Both tempi and dynamics are beautifully handled. Abbado’s ability to unravel the emotional turmoil that underpins this work is incomparable.
DG 423 6552
Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan
Karajan is on commanding form and the pristine Berliner musicians equally so.
EMI Classics 586 0672
Vienna Philharmonic/ Carlos Kleiber
Idiosyncratic it may be but this is a recording not to be missed.
DG 449 7452
Vienna Philharmonic/ Georg Solti
Sure footed, full of depth and understanding, plus top sound.
Decca 448 9272
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Harnoncourt exposes the darkness and torment in an array of orchestral colour.
Apex 0927 40840-2