“I’ve started, so I’ll finish,“ is clearly not a principle that Franz Schubert always adhered to. Having set out in 1822 to compose a new symphony in B minor, he got no further than the first two movements and nine orchestrated bars of a scherzo. At his death six years later the torso remained, and the intriguing question is why he never returned to complete a work that had to wait until 1865 for its very first performance. The composer Hans Gál once suggested that after the originality, power and skill which had gone into those first two movements Schubert – as happened in the case of his Easter cantata Lazarus – felt he simply could not have maintained the same level of inspiration.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi | Balu Photography
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi | Balu Photography

Fabio Luisi, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, clearly sees the Unfinished as a symphony of the night. He coaxed it slowly into life from a virtually inaudible beginning, and the murky gloom hardly dissipated for the rest of the opening movement, with the performance almost grinding to a halt at one stage. Timings never tell a complete story, but at seventeen minutes in length and with little muscular power in the rhythms and phrase endings constantly etiolated, it felt as though the life-blood was being sucked away. Strange then that Luisi chose to highlight a booming timpani, which added nothing to the overall coherence of the reading.

If the pace of the first movement was nowhere near the composer’s Allegro moderato marking, the Andante con moto began more in keeping with a slow movement, but where was the all-important flow? From over-careful phrasing at the start, Luisi lurched quite violently into what passes for a second subject, only to apply the brakes and reduce much of the wind counterpoint to a whisper. This might have been conceived as a piece of drama, but since the prevailing mood is one of introspection this contrast seemed merely wilful. At least the orchestral textures revealed a degree of warmth, especially from the violas positioned on the conductor’s immediate right and Andrew Marriner’s clarinet that floated gently above the half-lit parapet. Well before the final bars of the movement, however, both the tempo and the dynamic levels were already signalling that the performance had lost much of its momentum.

Schubert and Brahms make good stable companions in one sense, since both had a less than sunny view of life. Schubert once said to a friend, “Do you know any happy music?” before quickly adding, “I don’t.” Brahms, speaking of his D major symphony (not a work that is traditionally regarded as gloomy), admitted “that black wings constantly rustle over us.” After such an enervating performance of the Unfinished I for one was not hoping for more of the same in the German Requiem that followed. This piece has not always had the most welcome of receptions, with frequent references to the stodginess of the textures and the generally pervading gloom, best summed up in George Bernard Shaw’s comment that the work “was patiently borne only by the corpse”. Even though all seven movements proceed at a stately pace, this shouldn’t disguise the fact that there are numerous contrasts and moments of drama packed into the dense polyphony of the structure. What a good performance needs – in addition to clarity, precision and rhythmic strength – is fervour and the kind of ardent commitment that can move the listener. Sadly, such qualities were not always in evidence in this performance.

Most of the heavy lifting in this piece is done by the chorus, with the strings conveying an all-embracing warmth designed to underline the feeling of succour and consolation that the composer intended. The work is not aimed at invoking the after-life but is directed solely at those still in the here-and-now. When required, the London Symphony Chorus produced a full body of sound, with the fearless sopranos particularly impressive in faster passages, but they also maintained a legato line with focused tone in quieter moments, such as in the concluding movement where the “dass sie ruhen” was delivered with a commendable steadiness. They were at their best in the sixth movement, where the fiery energy and theatricality present in the score reached its climax with “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?” 

Of the two soloists, Simon Keenlyside, replacing an indisposed Ruben Drole, was a figure of authority, his warmth and clarity of diction being close to ideal. Julia Kleiter was a fresh-toned but slightly small-scale soprano who floated her phrases effortlessly but whose enunciation was not always so assured. If at times Luisi offered strong dynamic contrasts, as in the opening movement, he rarely demonstrated absolute conviction elsewhere, notably in the introduction to the second movement where the ominous tread and gradual swelling of the orchestral texture were less than overwhelming.