hr-Sinfonieorchester performs Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Schubert – Unfinished Symphony (hr-Sinfonieorchester, Christoph Eschenbach)

Conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) performs Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759, commonly known as the “Unfinished Symphony” (German: Unvollendete). Recorded during the Rheingau Music Festival at the Eberbach Abbey (Kloster Eberbach) on June 19, 2016. Published by hr-Sinfonieorchester channel.

Schubert started composing the piece in the autumn of 1822, but left with only two movements known to be complete, even though he would live for another six years.

There are two complete, and completely orchestrated movements:

  1. Allegro moderato in B minor. Opens in sonata form, softly in the strings, followed by a theme shared by the solo oboe and clarinet. A typically laconic Schubertian transition consists of just four measures for the two horns, effectively modulating to the subdominant parallel key of G major (mm. 38-41). The second subject begins with a celebrated lyrical melody in that key, stated first by the celli and then by the violins to a gentle syncopated accompaniment. This is interrupted by a dramatic closing group alternating heavy tutti sforzandi interspersed with pauses and developmental variants of the G major melody, ending the exposition. An important moment in the first movement occurs in measure 109 (and repeats in the recapitulation in measure 327). In these measures, Schubert holds a tonic ‘B’ pedal in the second bassoon and first horn under the dominant F♯ chord, that evokes the end of the development in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Unfortunately, a well-meaning but inexperienced editor removed this dissonance by altering the second bassoon and first horn part. Conductors must check these parts carefully to make sure that the ‘B’ pedal is intact. Unusual for sonata form, the development section begins with a quiet restatement of the opening melody in the subdominant (E minor) (a tonality usually reserved for near the end of a sonata form movement somewhere in the recap or coda) and rises to a prolonged climax in the same key, starting with a dramatic variant of the opening melody in the full orchestra with prominent trombones. The expected relative (D) major of the tonic (B) minor first appears only at the end of that climax, and then again for the second subject of the recap (in place of the expected tonic B major)-instead of much earlier, in the second subject of the exposition, as customary. The flutes and oboes then resume their melodic role at the end of that dramatic outburst, transitioning to the recapitulation. The recapitulation consists mostly of orthodox sonata-form restatement of the themes, except that Schubert restates the melodious second theme in the relative key of D major instead of the usual B major (parallel to the tonic B minor). The dramatic closing section, however, does end in B major, and leads to a coda in the tonic B minor. This recalls the opening theme for still another, final, dramatic reworking to pave the way for the emphatic concluding chords.
  2. Andante con moto in E major. The second movement alternates two contrasting themes in sonatina form (sonata form without development, with a quietly dramatic, elegiac, extended coda that could be characterized as a concluding development section). The lyrical first is introduced by the horns, low strings, brass, and high strings playing in counterpoint. The plaintive second, in minor, after four simple unharmonized notes in transition spelling out the tonic chord of the relative C-sharp minor quietly by the first violins, begins in the solo clarinet in C-sharp minor and continues in the solo oboe in C-sharp major in an example of the major-minor juxtapositions that are a hallmark of Schubert’s harmonic language. A dramatic closing theme in the full orchestra returns to C-sharp minor, but ends in D-flat major (the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major). A short transition back to the tonic E major ushers in the recapitulation—notable for how it restates the second theme in the subdominant A minor (instead of the expected tonic parallel E minor) begun by the oboe and continued by the clarinet (vice versa to their roles in the exposition). The coda starts with a new theme that is simply an extension of the two-bar E major cadential figure that opens the movement. This gives way to the laconic triadic first-violin transition motto, which leads to a restatement of the first theme by the woodwinds in distant A-flat major followed by the motto again leading back to the tonic E major for a final extended transformation of the first theme, leading in term to a final extended version of the opening cadential figure that reappears to close.

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