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Schubert, Brahms: Stephen Hough, piano; Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 14.2.2008 (HS)

Finishing unfinished works has a long and checkered history in music. Even those that have entered into the mainstream, such as Süssmayr's rather lavish take on Mozart's Requiem and Alfano's brassy coda to Puccini's Turandot, make it fairly easy to tell where the original composer leaves off. A similar fate befalls a recent completion of Schubert Symphony in B minor "Unfinished" by Anton Safronov. The Russian National Orchestra, under its principal guest conductor, the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski, brought it on tour to San Francisco this week on a program that also included Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring Stephen Hough.

Schubert himself completed the two movements we hear so often of the symphony. He left fairly extensive sketches for a scherzo, including nine bars fully scored. Nothing remains of any possible sketches for a finale. Enter Safronov, born in 1972, 148 years after Schubert's death. A Russian composer who has won some prizes in Europe for his work, Safronov immersed himself in Schubert's  music for clues on how he might have worked out a scherzo and finale.

As dark and brooding as the first two movements are, the putative scherzo bounces along jauntily. In 3, as are the first two movements, it is reminiscent of the menuetto form of a lively dance, a slower middle section, and a return to the lively dance. The finale, which Safronov sketched himself from original tunes modified from music he found in Schubert's lesser known and incomplete later works, also is in triple meter. It starts with an upward skip of a fifth, reversing the prevailing mood of downward fifths in the familiar first two movements, and gallops off like the finales of Ninth Symphony or the "Death and the Maiden" quartet.

Unlike Schubert's own music, however, it misses the harmonic inventiveness and the unexpected twists that capture and keep a listener's interest. Safronov also uses more trumpet and brass flourishes than I recall from Schubert's other works. And there are several spots where the rhythms seem awkward, certainly something that never happens in Schubert's own polished musical world.

As for Jurowski's interpretation, he favored quick tempos and a no-nonsense approach that avoided conductorial excesses in the familiar portions of the music. One could have wished for more clarity in the textures, which had a tendency to get muddy. That may be a function of an orchestra unfamiliar with the reverberative acoustic of Davies Hall.

Orchestral texture must be a priority for this conductor, however. He repositioned the musicians differently for the two works. For the Schubert, he split the violins with firsts to his left and seconds to his right, cellos across the middle and up behind the first violins, violas behind the seconds, four basses to his left behind the cellos. The brass spread across the center in a single line behind two rows of woodwinds, timpani at the back. He kept the antiphonal setup of the violins but overshifted everything to the left and center, with nothing behind the second violins. Eight basses were arrayed across the back center, with timpani to the left. That was a new formation for me.

The results in this concert made no compelling case for clarity or balances, which, in the end, were acceptable but not exceptional in any way.

Jurowski also pitched a small tantrum when applause rang out after the first movement of the Schubert. Concerts featuring Russian artists bring out significant numbers from San Francisco's large Russian community, not all of whom are regular concert-goers. To shush the audience by raising his arms dramatically, then gripping the rail behind him in obvious frustration was simply insulting to the audience. Making a big show of keeping his arms up after each succeeding movement only added to the effect.

One intrepid audience member did have the temerity to applaud after several seconds of silence following the first movement of the Brahms concerto. Hough had the good graces to smile and nod in the direction of the clapping.

Hough, who can play with formidable technique, excelled primarily in the quieter moments of the concerto and the expansive slow movement. His lyrical touch, which spun out some lovely legato passages, was the best part of his playing. When things got livelier, his sense of timing was on the button but he never got much rhythmic snap, even in the few bravura moments Brahms allows. On the other hand, he showed a keen sense of being on the same page with Jurowski, who marshaled the orchestra into quite a stampede in the stormy moments of the opening movement. The finale, however, tended to lurch from point to point.

Finishing a concert with a concerto doesn't allow for orchestral encores. So the visiting Russians left San Francisco with a Russian composer's pastiche of Schubert as the only music of their own, and solid if less-than-compelling work on a couple of Romantic European chestnuts.

Harvey Steiman

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