Schubert: Symphony No. 7 "Unfinished" (CD review)

Also, Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major; Polonaise in B flat Major; Concert Piece in D Major for Violin and Orchestra. Andreas Janke, violin; David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. RCA Red Seal 88697 95335 2.

The first thing we have to clear up is the numbering. Yes, this is the symphony most of us know as No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished." But sometimes folks number it Schubert's Seventh because of confusion with another of his unfinished symphonies, often referred to also as the Seventh. You would think that by now at least record companies would settle on a common numbering system, and since a majority of people usually think of the "Unfinished" as No. 8, I can't for the life of me understand why companies choose intentionally to obfuscate the issue. It seems to me counterproductive of RCA to confuse their own buying public.

Anyway, Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the first two movements of his "Unfinished" Symphony in 1822, and why he never completed it is anybody's guess; he would live for another half a dozen years, so it's not as though he died before he could get it done. Its being unfinished has given any number of composers opportunity over the years to complete it for him and listeners to divine into its incompleteness some higher purpose. Fortunately, most conductors have played the two movements straight and left the reconstructions and suppositions to others. Such is the case here, with Maestro David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra, who perform it on modern instruments but with period designs. Zinman is an old hand at this kind of thing, of course, having successfully negotiated the nine Beethoven symphonies in a like manner to excellent effect. His "Unfinished" is the second disc in a complete Schubert symphony cycle he's doing for RCA Red Seal, with a separate and simultaneous release containing Nos. 1 and 2.

OK, on to the music, and first up it is, indeed, the "Unfinished" Symphony, all two movements of it. Under Zinman, the opening Allegro moderato has mystery, strength, and dash. There is no scurrying around to outdo those who think the period-performance crowd have a lock on the piece nor any dawdling to satisfy those who think of the work as the first truly "Romantic" symphony. Instead, Zinman suffuses the movement with all the drama, glow, and passion one could want, yet he allows it to float along, too, on a most-lyrical plane. I found the first movement quite well done.

Although Zinman takes the Andante con moto at a quicker pace than one usually hears, it never seems rushed. Rather, it sounds vigorous and forceful while at the same time loving and unruffled. One could argue that it loses a little something in poetic delicacy and rhapsodic sentiment in the process; however, it more than makes up for it in dreamy longing and pure, old-fashioned excitement.

Schubert never wrote any full-fledged concertos, but here we find as couplings three of his smaller compositions for violin and orchestra: the Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major, the Polonaise in B flat Major, and the Concert Piece in D Major for Violin and Orchestra. The Tonhalle Orchestra's soloist and first violinist Andreas Janke makes each piece seem very personal, his realizations filled with soul, so to speak. With excellent, unobtrusive support from Zinman and his players, the three short works come off as pure Schubert--light, airy, melodious, breezy, and completely charming, the Rondo coming off with all the trapping of the composer's "Trout" Quintet.

Yes, the disc is delightful, and it marks an auspicious beginning for Zinman, a Schubert cycle that promises to be as good as his Beethoven, which is saying a lot.

Recorded in May and September of 2011 in Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland, the sound, too, is excellent. It displays good overall imaging and an especially fine depth of image, with strong dynamic contrasts, and solid impact. The sonics are nicely transparent throughout, big and open and clean. The miking is close but not too close. And one can hear a light, pleasant, resonant air around the instruments that imbues them with a most-lifelike quality.

If this particular disc has any drawback, it's minor in that it contains only a little over fifty minutes of music. I suppose the way RCA have laid out the complete cycle on CD, they have some justification for so brief an album. Besides, it's not the quantity that counts here but the quality, something the disc contains in abundance.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa