Schubert: Symphonies 1, 3 & 7 - de Vriend
Challenge Classics CC 72802
Classical - Orchestral
Schubert: Symphonies 1, 3 & 7
Residentie Orkest The Hague
Jan Willem de Vriend (conductor)
While offering little suggestion of the symphonic mastery he would attain less than a decade later, the First Symphony, influenced by Mozart’s last symphonies and completed in October 1813, is a remarkable achievement.
Schubert composed his Third Symphony over a period of about two months, completing the work in July 1815. The Third Symphony is generally characterised by an increased rhythmic intensity, at times bordering on obsession. We may well think of Schubert primarily as a wonderful melodist, but driving, sometimes overpowering rhythm is just as strong a feature of many of his greatest works.
The question of why Schubert left this B minor symphony unfinished has continued to exercise scholars. The most convincing explanation is that he simply found himself unable to continue on the same exalted level and resigned himself to leaving the symphony as it was – two movements of breath-taking quality and imagination. There is no evidence that he ever wished, in his remaining six years, to return to the work, or that he regarded it as “unfinished”. Beethoven's influence on the historic development of the symphony was staggering. His own examples, widening the expressive range of the genre, opened up a new world. Against this background, Schubert conceived a work of much greater poetry, drama and profundity than he had attempted in his previous symphonies.
Over-familiarity may well have blunted our appreciation of this symphony, which is strikingly original from almost every aspect. Apart from the concentrated, expressive quality, there is also a greatly enhanced sense of tone-colour, with much richer sonorities, and a new spaciousness.
Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 27, 2019
I will refrain from repeating my general remarks about Schubert (available here: Schubert: Symphonies 2 & 4 - de Vriend), neither will I dwell too much on the two youth symphonies included in this release. Not because they aren’t worth mentioning, but rather because the most impressive item here is number 7 (former 8), commonly called the ‘Unfinished’, or ‘Unvollendete’ in its native language, which deserves all our unmitigated attention.
When I was much younger, the ‘unfinished’ was one of the greatest war horses in the concert hall. Very in vogue by audiences, orchestras and … hall directors, with its beautiful melodies and catchy themes. This was Schubert’s “first Romantic symphony due to its emphasis on the lyrical impulse within the dramatic structure of Classical sonata form”, usually dished up with a fair amount of mellowness and pleasantly dreamy speeds. All of it in line with the views of the influential German critic, Hanslick, as published after the premiere in 1865: “The whole movement is a sweet stream of melodies, in spite of its vigor … “.
How utterly wrong they were (and some still are). A dramatic misunderstanding of Schubert’s deepest emotional creation. And how right Jan Willem de Vriend is in his reading of the score and all that’s hidden inside!
Of course, over the years different conductors and more research have led to a better understanding of Schubert’s emotional feelings. Several first rate recordings of the ‘unfinished’ exist, but I’ve never heard this symphony being played with so much involvement and expression; sweeping, in my view, many recent ‘light weight’ modern readings in one go off the ‘Bühne’. Here we have the ultimate combination of sorrow, angst and resilience so immensely powerful unraveled by de Vriend’s masterly underlining the almost fatal dissonance in the first movement’s development and the dramatic outburst after the final repeat of the first theme. Most impressive!
Although the lyrical start of the second movement leaves the listener with an initial impression of ‘rural’ friendliness, in de Vriend’s reading it is soon overtaken by tragedy and waves of internal struggle. No sweetness here. De Vriend ably draws a befitting degree of harshness from the players of the ‘Residentie Orkest The Hague’, to bring into focus the composer’s recurrent mixed feelings of despair and resolve. This is for me the real Schubert at this point in life.
Many have speculated about why Schubert stopped after writing 16 measure of the third movement. Some believe that he became too busy with another composition: The Wanderer Sonata; others suggest that it wasn’t the first time he left a symphonic work unfinished (the original number 7) or that he no longer saw the necessity to follow the traditional pattern of a three or four movement symphony. I share the theory that he realized that he had nothing more to add. All had been said in the first two movements.
Attempts to complete the symphony, and notably the one by the British musicologue, Brian Newbould, are therefore and as I see it, merely born out of a complete misjudgment of the symphony’s character. Suggesting that Rosamunde’s incidental music would (or could) have been meant for the fourth and final movement ‘because of the similarity in the key of B minor’ sounds unimaginable and too simple to me.
For completeness sake I mention Huawei’s recent ‘smartphone’ attempt, using artificial intelligence to assist the young American composer, Lucas Cantor, to finish the symphony as it could have been done by Schubert. In spite of Cantor’s effort it sadly is no more than a compilation of Schubert-like tunes, missing the point, or better: Missing altogether the soul of the symphony and the genius of Schubert. I’ve classified it under ‘clever PR’. It can be heard here: https://consumer.huawei.com/content/dam/huawei-cbg-site/weu/common/mkt/campaign/unfinished-symphony/HUAWEI-Unfinished-Symphony.mp3
I’m well aware that people who do not want a lovely romantic, at times vigorous symphony being spoiled by a perhaps - as they would probably advance - too ‘melodramatic’ interpretation, would prefer a more polished reading. If so, they should abstain and would, indeed, be well advised to look elsewhere. But those who look at the emotionally laden character of Schubert with a different eye will find here confirmation of his life long struggle between the sunny and dark side of his existence as well as his constant strive for becoming Beethoven’s artistic successor. And putting things in proper context, it may also be added that his seventh symphony coincided with the official verdict of his incurable illness.
Ever since de Vriend became Principal Conductor of The Residentie Orkest The Hague, a shift in sound has occurred, at least whenever he is at the helm. It may be recalled that he originates from a historical practice background (Combattimento Consort, Amsterdam), which had a decisive effect on the period of his tenure at the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, completely reshaping the sound of this provincial orchestra. This hybrid historical way of playing suits very well Schubert’s youth symphonies as recorded here with high spirited accounts of the first and third.
There are differences though. The first is taken from a 2016 live recording in a temporary venue (awaiting the completion of the new Cultural Centre in The Hague) shortly after de Vriend had taken up his position. In comparison with the Third (recorded two years later in a sort of studio location) his quality stamp is clearly distinguishable, especially in the demanding final movements of both symphonies: Allegro Vivace (1) and Presto Vivace (3) respectively, whereby the latter comes off best.
Challenge Classics is not the only one. Other surveys are in the making, each having their specific qualities. However, with such an impressive seventh, the almost unprecedented recording technique of Bert van der Wolf’s Northstar Recording Services, and depending on one’s personal take on Schubert, de Vriend’s release must now be reckoned to be amongst the very best available, trusting that the final installments (5, 6, and 8) will uphold the same high standard.
The liner notes give ample information and I was happy to learn from Jan Willem de Vriend’s bio that a recording of Mendelssohn’s concerti for two pianos is in the offing.
After all this praise a simple comment: The ‘Unfinished’ is on the cover and in the booklet still listed as number 8 instead of number 7, in accordance with the new numbering. But rest assured, one doesn’t hear the difference …
Copyright © 2019 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net