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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Finished “Unfinished”
Symphony No. 8 in B minor D. 759 (1822, reconstructed by Mario Venzago)
Kammerorchester Basel/Mario Venzago
rec. live, 4 March 2016, Casino Basel Musiksaal
SONY 88985431382 [43:07]

The completion of unfinished works, or the reconstruction of lost ones, particularly when the work is as celebrated as Schubert’s B minor symphony, known as the Unfinished, raises delicate aesthetic and ethical issues. I shall briefly state my own approach so that readers know where I am coming from.

A musical work in the Western tradition is the realization of a written score. The idiom in most periods involves a certain symmetry in design and the repetition, sometimes varied, sometimes not, of key parts of the work. If the score is incomplete, then failing the completion by the composer, which is not available, then a completion or reconstruction by a good scholar allows us to hear an approximation to what the composer intended. The use of repetition as part of the overall design can make this possible, or the existence of sketches or later versions of the work, or a good understanding of the design and idiom. Without this the work may be an incomplete torso, or may be unperformable. The work is not damaged by this process, since, unlike a picture, a sculpture or a building, it exists not as a unique physical object but as a score, which can be reproduced without detriment and edited without affecting the original version. Completions and reconstructions may be well or badly done, but they should be judged on how well they appear to complete what appears to be the original design by the composer. If you don’t like the idea or the individual realisation, you don’t have to listen.

Mario Venzago explains his approach in the sleevenote to this recording. He points out that Schubert presented the original score to his friend Hüttenbrenner and would not have presented an incomplete work. He later asked for the score of the finale back when he was pressed for time to complete the commission for incidental music to the play Rosamunde. Hüttenbrenner removed the bundle containing this from the complete work and returned it. This left the opening bars of the Scherzo on the last page of the remaining manuscript which contained the first two movements and which he retained. Schubert reused the finale for two movements of Rosamunde, the B minor Entracte and the B minor ballet music, but the remainder of the Scherzo has disappeared. However, an almost complete sketch of it survives (the Eulenburg score of the work contains this in facsimile). The surviving score of the first two movements was used for a performance in 1865, and since then that is what we usually hear. However, this is not what Schubert would have wanted, and it is possible to reconstruct the complete work from the sketch of the Scherzo and the music for Rosamunde. In fact as long ago as 1881 George Grove suggested that the B minor Entracte from Rosamunde was the missing finale, since it is too big for incidental music, and for the symphony it is in the right key, the right sort of length, the right mood, and uses the same orchestration as the first two movements.

In the case of the Scherzo, Venzago has orchestrated the surviving sketch in Schubertian style and supplied the missing part of the trio from the G major ballet music from Rosamunde, put into triple time. For the Finale he has used the exposition from the B minor ballet music, omitting the repeats, and then moved to the B minor Entracte, which is based on the same material. Just before the Coda he adds a reminiscence of the opening of the first movement; this is only four bars, and he says that you can programme the player to omit them, but in fact this is not cued on the disc. He has done no pastiche composition but used only original Schubert material. So this is a reconstruction rather than a completion.

So much for the research. How does it work in practice? One point is that seeing the work as a normal four movement symphony changes the relationships of the two familiar movements. The first movement needs to move quickly, not to drag or be given spurious weight. Venzago’s choice of the Kammerorchester Basel to record the work supports this. The string complement is relatively small (only 24 players rather than the 60 of a full symphony orchestra), which changes the balance between strings and wind. And Venzago’s interpretation, not only of this movement but of the whole work, is nimble, light on its feet, and flowing. It is closer to Schubert’s earlier symphonies than what we usually hear. The second movement is melancholy rather than tragic. He does not take the Scherzo unduly fast but it is in one in a bar rather than a heavy three and the expanded trio is delightful. The Finale will prove the most controversial movement, because Venzago has not just played the B minor Entracte straight but reworked it using the ballet music. He says that for him this is the most exciting movement. In his hands it is certainly that and it comes over as a varied and interesting piece and a worthy end to the symphony. His brief reminiscence of the opening may not be what a scholar would have done but it is effective in its place and I would not have it away.

Considering the work dispassionately as a four movement symphony, I would say that the last two movements are not inferior to the first two. This is of course high praise. There might have been a slight risk of monotony as three of the four movements (the first three) are in triple time and three also (the first, third and fourth) are in B minor. However, this is obviated by Venzago’s light and flowing approach. I should emphasize that this is not unduly brisk.

The recording is a live one made in the excellent acoustics of the Stadtcasino in Basel (this is nothing to do with a casino as understood in English!). Applause has been omitted. The sleevenote, by Venzago, is very informative and I have drawn on it for this review. It is provided in English and German. The disc rather coyly does not give its rather short playing time but that is not going to bother anyone interested in this reconstruction.

There have been other completions, or rather, reconstructions of the symphony. The best known one is that by the Schubert scholar Brian Newbould. He also scored the sketch of the Scherzo and for the missing part of the trio he composed something which sounds suitably Schubertian. For the finale he used the B minor Rosamunde Entracte unchanged. This has been recorded by Mackerras (review) and Marriner (Philips 432045 or the complete symphonies now on download). An earlier completion on similar lines by Gerald Abraham (he filled out the trio of the scherzo with a Schubert song) was recorded by Charles Groves in 1971. I find I prefer a four movement version even to such a fine recording of the traditional two movement version as that by Abbado (review). Until this new disc by Venzago arrived, I had been in the habit of listening to the symphony in Marriner’s version. I shall not be discarding either Marriner or Mackerras, but I am very happy with Venzago’s version and this will probably now be my first preference.

Stephen Barber



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