Stephen Hough; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Vladimir Jurowski

Weber: Freischütz Overture ; Schubert: Symphony No.8 (compl. Safronov); Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1

Royal Festival Hall, 6 November 2007 3 stars

Vladimir Jurowski (photo: Roman Gontcharov)There can be few more famously incomplete works in classical music than Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony. For almost a hundred and fifty years since its first performance, music lovers have been happy enough to make do with the two movements that Schubert did finish and it seems strange to me that Anton Safronov, a composer, should have devoted what seems to have been significant effort to finishing the third movement (for which fragmentary sketches by Schubert exist) and composing a brand new finale for the work. Several Schubert scholars, including Brian Newbould in the early eighties, 'completed' the work and despite Vladimir Jurowski's advocacy of this new version, I'm afraid I can't see it escaping the same fate as previous ones, finding a home in the footnotes of Schubert biographies rather than in the concert hall.  

Before anyone accuses me of being a purist, I should point out that I approached this performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Jurowski, with as open a mind as possible. However, the great yawning chasm in quality and inspiration between what is Schubert's and what Safronov has produced was too wide for any amount of wishful thinking to be able to bridge. That's not to say that Safronov didn't make a perfectly decent stab at his assignment. The fact was, though, that it felt like it was exactly that, an assignment – something not too different to the exercises in compositional technique that music undergraduates have to undertake.

Some scholars, Maynard Solomon for example, have argued that Schubert actually decided to stick to the two movement structure, even possibly in emulation of some of Beethoven's more experimental late piano sonatas (particularly the two-movement Op.111 sonata). Safronov argues that it was a mixture of 'practical and internal' reasons that prevented the work from being completed: mid way through, Schubert received the commission for the 'Wanderer' Fantasy forcing him to break off; the piece was so different from the other symphonies that Schubert didn't yet quite know how to finish it. Safronov sees the finales of some of the late instrumental works (mainly the galloping finales of the Piano Sonata D. 958 and the 'Death and the Maiden' Quartet) as the solution.

His version of the finale then, is in many ways very similar to these two movements. It gallops along merrily but unlike Schubert's own movements, it is a little directionless and sticks quite resolutely to the middle path; there are none of the harmonic excursions or twists and turns that Schubert introduces, that is to say, none of the inventiveness that allows Schubert to sustain our interest. This therefore made for a rather dull ten minutes and I'm afraid the mixing of themes of the first movement with elements of the finale's theme was a rather obvious touch. Safronov uses for this movement melodic material from the unfinished Piano Sonata D.571 and the Marche Heroïque for piano duet, D602, none of which, it has to be said, shows the composer at his most inspired.

Although Schubert did leave some material for the third movement, I couldn't help but think that it was partly his dissatisfaction with this material that contributed to his abandoning composition. The movement's main theme is arresting but distinctly uninspired and the theme of the trio is likewise rather prosaic. It wasn't clear whether the decision to have this trio theme played against a syncopated wind accompaniment, almost identical to that used for the first movement's second subject, was Safronov's or derived from something in Schubert's sketches. Whatever the case, it only served to emphasise this theme's inferiority.

It seems very unfair to compare Safronov's work with that of Schubert himself but surely anyone who attempts to complete a composition left unfinished invites comparison with the original composer. This is even more the case when it is consciously done not as an exercise in academic reconstruction but as composition pure – Safronov grandly proclaims 'working on the completion of Schubert's 'Unfinished', I constantly felt a co-creator with Schubert, endeavouring to reach as deeply as possible into the internal world of someone dear to him. This feeling manifested itself more often than my sense of being an objective, impartial musicologist.' Unlike, for example, Brian Newbould who as an academic argued that music from Rosamunde should be used as the finale, Safronov seems to be setting out to complete the symphony himself, to complete a work that Schubert himself did not feel able to complete. It is grimly inevitable that he should have failed to produce anything convincing.

Stephen Hough (photo: Grant Hiroshima)These two extra movements perhaps took the attention away from what were rather fine readings of the first two movements. Jurowski's readings were totally unindulgent and particularly successful in the more dramatic passages. In the more lyrical passages, like the first movement's second subject, I was worried more than a couple of times by some wayward intonation in the strings – the 'cello's in particular sounded a little out of sorts, an effect made all the more obvious for their lack of vibrato.  

The performance of Weber's Freischütz Overture which had started the concert was likewise dramatic, with some heroic playing from the horns (the vagaries of the natural horns got the better of them a couple of times, not least in the big chord before the clarinet theme). Jurowski set a swift tempo which drew some clean, virtuosic playing from the orchestra.

After the dubious novelty value of the first half, there were novelties in the second in the form of a majestic, rosewood 'Centennial D' Steinway. This is the same model piano that Brahms requested it to perform his First Piano Concerto on. The flamboyant appearance of this instrument was a little at odds with the sharp, modern tailoring favoured by pianist Stephen Hough but he'd obviously had spent some time getting used to the instrument. In terms of sound, there was a certain extra tanginess to the timbre and the bass notes had a less focussed, slightly hollow quality. However, it was without doubt a fine and powerful instrument, which allowed Hough both to unleash thunderous barrages of double octaves and to sing sweetly in the more lyrical passages.

Hough was, as one would expect, technically impressive, especially so given the fast tempi that were set. That said, by Hough's own extremely high standards, there were a few more smudges than customary, although this could well have been down to the relative unfamiliarity of the instrument. It was fascinating, after catching some of John Eliot Gardiner's Brahms last week to compare notes. The main difference, I suppose, was in the principle works being performed, Gardiner identified the First Symphony as being build upon the foundations of years of study of past models, whereas the First Piano Concerto, completed over fifteen years before the symphony, is a more unruly, rhapsodic beast.

Jurowski and Hough read it as such and combined to bring fire to the many dark and dramatic passages and improvisatory lyricism to the reflective moments. The first movement was majestic without becoming staid, the Adagio properly affecting and the finale exciting. Hough's playing was carefully considered – his treatment of the contrapuntal writing exectuted with crystalline clarity – but he rustled up plenty of Sturm und Drang when required. The extra directness of the OAE's sound added to the excitement.

In sum, this was an interesting concert. I'm glad to have heard Safronov's 'completion' of the 'Unfinished' but it is not something I can see establishing itself in the repertoire, nor, to be frank, does it deserve to. It came as a relief to have a such a fine performance of Brahms' First Piano Concerto in the second half, with the composer at his most ruggedly inspired. Although with period instruments and a 150 year-old piano this was as close to an authentic performance as one could imagine, it was the authenticity of the work itself that saved the day.

By Hugo Shirley