Saturday 11 February 2012

Should unfinished works be left alone?

I recently acquired a box set of Schubert’s ten symphonies. Yes that’s right, ten symphonies. I only got the set because I still admire Neville Marriner’s performances with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. However, it has been fascinating to hear Brian Newbould’s completion of number eight, and his ‘realisation’ of numbers seven and ten. The set even includes completions and orchestrations of two symphonic fragments.  

I have also just purchased Dutton’s new recording of Moeran’s sketches for his Symphony No.2 realised and completed by Martin Yeates.  As a lover of British music this was a must but it did start me thinking about the whole difficult issue of such ‘realisations’.

Of course this is nothing new. We only have to look at the symphonies of various composers that have been subjected to this treatment over the years. Following on from Schubert, there’s Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Tenth, Elgar’s Third, Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth and, recently Allan Pettersson’s First. And these are just those that come immediately to mind.

I’m leaving out operatic works such as Mussorsky’s Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair and Puccini’s Turandot and just thinking of symphonic works.

So should we start ‘tinkering’ with these works? It’s probably a bit late to stop the trend now but it’s worth thinking about what we hope to gain from such ‘completions’. Nobody these days would even question Franco Alfano’s completion of Turandot. Likewise, although others have attempted it, Sussmayr’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem is regularly performed.

Some commentators are extremely sniffy about the completion of any unfinished work but they have usually the advantage of access to the manuscript or sketches, not to mention superior sight reading capabilities. For the rest of us mere mortals these works are completely closed to us.

For me the issue revolves around how much the composer actually left to be worked on and, of course the skill of the person undertaking the completion. It is now generally well accepted that Anthony Payne’s ‘elaborations’ of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony are beautifully done and the work has entered into the repertoire. Even a recording of the complete Elgar symphonies now seems to always include the third. But not all of what you hear is Elgar even though Sir Andrew Davis, who gave the first performance and made the first recording, could not always tell which was Elgar and which was Payne.

So it is important to know just what you are listening to. Mahler’s Tenth is well documented to show just what Deryck Cooke and others had to work on. In the case of Mahler’s Tenth, the first and second movements were complete with the remaining movements sketched in short score with indications as to orchestration. That’s certainly more than Anthony Payne had to work on.

Oddly Bruckner’s Ninth seems to be stuck with just the three completed movements performed despite an interesting reconstruction of the finale by a series of people (Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca). This completion is not so bad as it seems, given that Bruckner appears to have worked very methodically setting his short score in bifolios of four bars per page, giving a surprisingly near to complete work excepting the orchestration. Naxos has a recording of this completion which is worth hearing

Of course Bruckner’s favoured solution, given that he had doubts that he would be able to finish the finale, was to use his Te Deum in its place. I’d never heard of a performance like this until reading Ivan Hewett’s review in the Daily Telegraph of a concert at the Festival Hall on 4th February 2012 with the LPO and chorus conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Although glad to have heard such a performance, Ivan Hewett had reservations over the joyous affirmation of the Te Deum coming after the ‘resigned spaciousness’ of the third movement.

Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth symphony, left incomplete at his death, left Alexander Raskatov a formidable task given that the sick composer’s sketches were far from neat and tidy. Whether the result is anywhere near what Schnittke intended is extremely difficult to tell from listening to it. It certainly seems very different from the composer’s other works.

I doubt whether many people will be familiar with the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. If you are, then you will be aware that the cycle of available symphonies has, until now, started at number two. This was not because Pettersson had so much withdrawn his first symphony but that he was still working on it at his death. Christian Lindberg has taken the novel approach in making a ‘performing edition’ without adding anything extra. Not even any extra orchestration. This enables the listener to hear what the composer had written up to that point. It makes for a fascinating listen though not as a completed work.

This leads me to Moeran’s Second Symphony which I was looking forward immensely to hearing.

                                                                CDLX 7281

Dutton have, over the last few years, done a tremendous amount for British music, taking on in many ways the mantle of Lyrita. This new issue draws on the sketches Moeran left after his death in 1950. There was talk of a full score in existence but the only manuscript that has been found are the sketches given to the University of Melbourne by his widow, the cellist, Peers Coetmore.

Moeran had worked on the symphony for over a decade and had recurring doubts as to its quality and whether or not it was an advance over his second symphony. Ill health and treatment for alcoholism did not help.

There is no doubt that Martin Yates has done a tremendous service to British music in bringing the sketches to a performable state. This is a four movement work lasting thirty three minutes. The way the movements are linked suggests that Moeran was thinking of a one movement work such as Sibelius’ seventh.

The first movement allegro has much of the feel of the composer’s first symphony with a sweeping melody evoking Moeran’s favourite landscape, that of Ireland. The bracing second movement is an allegro vivace and at just over five minutes has a greater conciseness. The beautiful adagietto is the longest movement and has all the typical Moeran fingerprints. As beautiful as the third movement is, one cannot help wondering what Moeran would have made of it had he lived to complete the work.

My biggest problem is with the last movement. Marked allegro vigoroso e poco maestoso it draws on very little original material. Whilst the ideas for the first three movements were fairly clear, Martin Yates tells us that Moeran left no clear intention as to what he had intended as a finale and had to draw on fragments of sketches on the back of pages of the sketches to construct this movement. Given the circumstances this is a remarkable achievement but, for me, it is the weakest part of the completion.

I’m tremendously grateful that Martin Yates and Dutton have allowed us to hear what exists of the work but it still remains a tantalising thought as to what Moeran might have achieved had his health permitted. Moeran’s friend Lionel Hill spoke of the composer playing ‘his new symphony to me on the piano. I can still see the short score in his neat pencil notation…’ I wonder if this short score will turn up one day?

There is an interesting online article by Fabian Huss on Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland website 

On this disc Martin Yates also gives us his orchestration of John Ireland’s piano piece of 1940/41 Sarnia as well as Moeran’s Overture for a Festival orchestrated by Rodney Newton. No lover of British music will want to miss this issue.

So where does this leave my original thoughts? Given the pleasure that all of the performing editions, completions or realisations have given, I am firmly in favour, so long as listeners remember that these are not the finished works of the composer. Sadly those works are lost for ever…unless a manuscript miraculously turns up.

In my next blog I’m moving from incomplete works to a lost work, Striggio’s 40 part mass Ecco si beato giorno which, for four centuries, was thought to be lost until a set of parts turned up in Paris five years ago.

See also:

A great performance of Bruckner’s completed Ninth Symphony from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

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