First, let’s clear up the title. The Symphony No. 7 by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) as recorded here is the same “Unfinished Symphony” that most of us know as No. 8. You’d think that by now people would have settled the debate over the numbering of Schubert’s final symphonies, yet occasionally folks still number as the Seventh what the rest of us refer to as the Eighth; I suppose it’s because of some confusion with another of his unfinished symphonies, sometimes also referred to as the Seventh. Nevertheless, I think it’s counterproductive for some conductors and some record companies intentionally to confound the issue, in this case Maestro Philippe Herreweghe and PentaTone Classics possibly confusing their own buying public. It doesn’t help, either, that the PentaTone graphics department provided such busy, unhelpful art work for the cover. Oh, well, it would probably make no difference to Schubert, since as with the rest of his orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway.
Now, to the more important subject: the performances. This disc is, I believe, the second for Herreweghe in what appears to be a complete Schubert symphony cycle. While his earlier disc of the Ninth Symphony was perhaps not a Ninth for the ages, Herreweghe certainly offered for the most part a well-considered, well-produced interpretation.
Understand, Herreweghe may not one of those conductors who immediately pops to mind as among the absolute greatest conductors of our day, yet he never disappoints with his recorded performances. While he’s neither foursquare nor revolutionary, he never takes an easy route, either, as this Schubert recording and his previous one demonstrate.
The program begins with the Symphony No. 6 in C, D.589 (1818), nicknamed “The Little C major” to differentiate it from the Symphony No. 9, which is also in C major and nicknamed “The Great.” Under Herreweghe, the slow introduction to the first movement sets the scene becomingly, leading into a sprightly Allegro. This is cheerful music, and Herreweghe does his best to keep it that way, even if the PentaTone sonics are perhaps a bit overwhelming for the occasion. Be that as it may, the performance, sounding only a little heavy, remains charming. If it doesn’t quite bring with it all the delight of Sir Thomas Beecham’s early stereo rendering (EMI), it isn’t entirely for lack of trying.
The second-movement Andante is something of an oddity, beginning with a beautifully light melody that suddenly and unexpectedly gets interrupted by some big, dramatic outbursts. Yes, it can be unsettling, but Herreweghe handles the transitions smoothly enough that at least this segment appears almost of a piece.
Herreweghe treats the Scherzo, also somewhat contradictory, in a wholly unified manner as well, the opposing forces jelling comfortably.
Then, there’s the finale, which Schubert never seemed to know when to end. Herreweghe’s solution is to play it relatively fast and move it along quickly to an end. It works reasonably well by its appropriately matching the sprightliness of the opening movement.
Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 7 (8) in B minor, D.759, “Unfinished,” around 1822. What Schubert left unfinished in two movements seems to us today perfectly complete, and Herreweghe for the most part has the measure of it. That starkly grim beginning that appears to promise something ominous or oppressive soon blossoms into the lovely flowing melodies we all love, alternating darkness and light. Again Herreweghe moves from one mood to another with an easy, confident command of transitions, at a somewhat slow but steady, persuasive pace.
In the second and final movement, Schubert surprises us by starting on a light, pastoral note and then turning it darker, the opposite of what he did previously. But this doesn’t confound Herreweghe, who takes it a brisk yet comfortable gait.
PentaTone is one of the few companies left recording in the hybrid stereo-multichannel SACD format. In the high-def SACD two-channel layer to which I listened, we find sound that is warmly dynamic. The SACD transient quality is fleet and its punch is impressive, the overall sonic character slightly cleaner and tighter than in the regular stereo mode (which one can play on any standard CD player), with a touch more air.
Recorded in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, in 2011, the sound in both regular and SACD stereo picks up the acoustic nicely, offering a pleasant room resonance, which adds to the overall realism. As I mentioned earlier, although the sound is a tad heavy for the little Sixth Symphony, it works well for the “Unfinished,” contributing a reassuring richness to the proceedings.