Unfinished symphonies ….

Mahler Ten, for starters: the various versions, and the recordings of those versions. And the principle of preparing a ‘performing’ version. How, given the evidence that we have, does the work fit into the Mahler Canon? Is it by now well established, or are there any of you out there who still have doubts? And Bruckner 9, that jagged, harmonically audacious set of finale ‘fragments’ whether played as is, or in the context of a ‘completion’. Schubert 7/8, too … all very different ‘cases’, but interesting topics to pursue.

21 thoughts on “Unfinished symphonies ….

  1. Robert Roy

    I Played in the Scottish Premier of Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s third symphony some years ago. It was an interesting idea but what struck me was how much it sounded like a school orchestra arrangement of an Elgar symphony. It just sounded watered down as well as being too straightforward to play. (Not something that is usual with Elgar!)

    I don’t think Elgar would have been pleased to hear his unfinished manuscript being treated in this way. I feel that if was right to perform the music as was originally done as a Radio 3 broadcast but I’m not sure the work deserves a place in the repertoire.


    1. Thanks Robert. ‘Elgar 3’ is a very
      interesting case – a boldly defiant opening that seems to walk away and leave the rest to its own devices, even though what follows falls very happily on the ear.


      1. Guy Rickards

        The interesting thing about the opening (and indeed close) of Elgar 3 is how close to Havergal Brian it is. Listen to Brian’s Second or Third, both contemporaneous with Elgar 3…


  2. I’d say that Elgar 3 was more akin to Berio’s completions (rendering etc), only not as extreme. Whereas Cooke/Mahler is as near as dammit to Mahler. Does anyone know the Druce completion of Mozart’s Requiem? A masterpiece!


  3. BarryGF

    I sense that there is still a degree of uneasiness about whole idea of “completions”, “performing versions”, etc. While no one wants to hear disrespectful caricatures or travesties of important unfinished works, there’s a danger of treating music as holy writ, or sacred relic not to be touched in any way, and only spoken of in the hushed tones of reverence normally associated with Nicholas Witchell lamenting the passing of a royal corgi. Music is, after all, something to be heard by people, not kept under wraps. It may be slightly naughty to go against a composer’s express wishes and perform suppressed works or complete incomplete ones, but you could argue that works of art transcend the human being who conceived and produced them. If a composer *really* wants to suppress a piece, s/he ought to do a Sibelius 8 and consign it all to the flames. As it is, the amount of scholarship, skill, inspiration and love it takes to produce, say, a completed Elgar 3 or Mahler 10 or Bruckner 9 can only be wondered at and admired. Can anyone really say the results are either illegitimate or not worth hearing? There can of course be debate about how successful the completion has been. I don’t really agree about Tony Payne’s Elgar 3, not least because very few people, however expert, have managed from listening to identify correctly which bits are Payne and which are Elgar. I have on cd the superb BBC talk which Payne gave on his work in progress in the mid-1990s, and it is nothing if not a teaser, leaving the listener hungry for more, which was no doubt the intention, pushing the Elgar estate into granting permission for the whole work, especially as it was soon going to be open season when Elgar came out of copyright. With Deryck Cooke’s “performing version” of Mahler 10 there was necessarily a lot of pussyfooting around while the capricious and usually sozzled Alma Mahler was still alive, but the completion still seems a wonderful feat in itself and fully deserves its place in the “official” canon. (Can I also put in a word for the Barshai completion, very different and perhaps a bit fanciful in parts, but extremely interesting?) There is the perhaps larger question of performing works actually withdrawn by composers, but that is perhaps off-topic!


    1. Many thanks for that Barry. It’s the continuing speculation that’s really agonizing. I’ve spent hours ‘imagining’ what Mahler might have added to his Tenth and very interestingly Tony Payne told me that in his view if completed the finale might have included some sort of apocalyptic happening (musically, speaking), more in the way of action (as I recall) – and that’s exactly how I feel. I admire Payne’s own work enormously yet sense that had Elgar continued apace, the finished work would have been entirely different … quite unlike Elgar as we know him. But that can only ever be a hunch, obviously.


  4. ‪Leslie Howard writes ‘If it’s Tchaikovsky’s E flat symphony completed by Semyon Bogatyryev it is worth ever semiquaver!!’

    ‪John Merrick writes ‘Moeran’s 2nd Symphony “completed” by Martin Yates – worth hearing just as a “what if”‘.


    1. Leslie Howard wrote: “I’ll give it a shot. Meanwhile, I’ve heard both the Brahms ‘3rd Piano Concerto’ – a crass rewrite of the fiddle concerto – and Rakh 5 – a mindbogglingly idiotic arrangement of bits of the the 2nd symphony [which was already perfect]. They deserve no further comment!”


  5. Rob,
    You may not yet be aware that the Nors Josephson completion of Bruckner 9 will be coming out on the Danacord label in the December/January period. I strongly believe that this version makes a much more compelling version of the finale than the other versions available on CD. Nors told me that 7/8s of the finale exists in the sketches. Will be fascinating to see what people make of the completion when it is released.
    John GIbbons


      1. Frederick Naftel writes: “I’ll second that view of Tchaikovsky’s 7th Symphony…….especially in Neeme Jarvi’s version. Mahler’s 10th in Cooke’s edition has been unfairly criticized but I think it’s wonderful.”


  6. Frederick Naftel wrote: “…remarkably Elgarian. I’ve also seen(but not yet heard)recordings of Brahms’ 3rd Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s 5th Piano Concerto. A fascinating work is Berio’s “rendering” of Schubert’s 10th Symphony. And is Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor Brahms’ 5th or 0th Symphony? I’d love to have heard a Vaughan Williams 10th or Shostakovich 16th!!!!!”


  7. Mozart’s Requiem: for those who’ve carped about Sussmayr’s completion, I always say that there should have been more Sussmayrs! Schubert’s unfinished C Major Sonata D. 840 is also an interesting case concerning the incomplete third and fourth movements. Ernst Krenek’s completion of the two deserves a modern recording, although I find Martino Tirimo’s particularly idiomatic and convincing.


  8. Steven Swalbe

    I have a ‘completed’ version of the E major Schubert. Last movement reminds of D810.Did you know that the Austrians now refer to D759 as the 7th? The reason why he did not complete it because of his morbid attempt at the scherzo. (Don’t laugh! I have improvised the completion of same. Haven’t played it for yonks.) Of course D944 is No 8. i have also tried to complete unfinished Mozart sonatas, of which there are several. I had to think as an eight year old in one of them.. .


  9. Brave efforts these Stephen! I’m always in two minds about the ‘Unfinished’. On a recent Building a Library slow I was very taken with Thomas Dausgaard’s version of the ‘Unfinished’, principally because it’s the only version I’ve ever heard that makes you think ‘perhaps that’s the truth: Schubert never got round to finishing it.’ To my ears all other performances end conclusively, which may or may not be what Schubert intended. Half of me thinks that when he returned to the second movement he thought, ‘no way forwards from here … no need to say any more’, and simply left it as was.


    1. Steven Swalbe.

      Franzl, as you know, left a whole lot of unfinished works. He knew what he was aiming for and if he missed the goal, he didn’t want to continue. Of course, his debilitation must have played a part. Many of Mozart’s early opi were incomplete. Strangely, amongst them are many lonely piano sonata finales. BTW it’s Steven.


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