SCHUBERT Symphonies Nos 5 & 8 (Abbado)
How Schubert’s Fifth is played (and heard) in concert depends heavily on where it’s placed (Sibelius’s Seventh is another symphony that shuttles between halves). Wolfgang Stähr’s contextual note helpfully explains that the Fifth ended this concert from Whit Monday of 1971. It’s a second-half sort of performance, strongly marked, observing all repeats, wrapped in Viennese legato and finished off with a dash of gentility like cream in the coffee.
By contrast, a sense of valediction is encoded within the DNA of the Unfinished Symphony (played first on the night, with Pollini in Bartók’s Second Concerto the missing centrepiece). While Mario Venzago and Stefan Gottfried have recently presented compelling counterfactuals of a finished Unfinished, the fact of the matter is and always will be that Schubert broke off composition after the first 12 bars of the Scherzo, leaving a B minor torso and not a fully rounded B flat major entity. We have what we have.
Listening to Abbado’s Gramophone Award-winning account with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2/89), and then to this concert performance from almost 20 years earlier, only serves to reinforce the rule that, once established, a musician’s vision of a work rarely undergoes radical transformation. Indeed, the conductor’s belated shift to ‘period’ Beethoven and Mozart proved something of an exception to that rule.
The opening of the Unfinished (against the backdrop of the Viennese noisily settling themselves into their seats) unfolds imposingly but without minatory intent, and is closed by a long fermata, as if to compress the material of a Haydnesque symphonic introduction within a single phrase. A kind of Brucknerian long game is played thereafter, for which the template would appear to be Karajan’s Salzburg Festival performance with the orchestra of 1968 (reissued by DG in 1995): no first-movement repeat and a reliance on the VPO’s principal oboe to sustain the movement’s principal theme at a tempo defying both credulity and breath control.
The Andante is thus nudged towards an Adagio, without (quite) turning the walking bass into a dirge. Perhaps only with his very last appearances on the podium, at the 2013 Lucerne Festival, did Abbado find the kind of line he was looking for in this music.