Schubert’s Unfinished: The Alzheimers Symphony?

I have long been fascinated by Schubert’s 8th, and today listened through the entire LP of Karajan’s mono recording with the Philharmonia which I recently acquired. But my gold standard is the Sinopoli, with the same orchestra, recorded decades later, in the digital era.

Sinopoli, an M.D. by training, is one of my favorite conductors, and it is tragic we lost him so early in life. His writings on music are deeply insightful and in this case, he perceived in the Unfinished a conception of “Dream and Memory” which parallels the experiences my family has had in coping with my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Were Sinopoli alive, I would certainly be writing him a letter after re-reading his notes on this piece. In my peripatetic record hunting, I managed to come across an autographed copy of his essay on the Unfinished, which I am including at the end of this post…he writes:

“The music of the b minor Symphony reflects the stages that occur between the ‘apparition’ of the ‘beloved good’ as dream or memory and the howl of ‘blinding’, of loss.”

This is the essence of Alzheimer’s, as it robs a person of memory, and yet, somehow clarifies the nature of humanity, as Sinopoli interperts the Symphony: “There are wandering melodies in which the desire to sing is stronger than any idea of will or structural development. This breeds an ineffable sadness, and the divine; the celestial thing about Schubert’s music is its freedom from temporality.”

Alzheimers knows no temporality, as any caregiver could tell you. Alzheimers lives in the ineffable present, in the dream that was memory. Sinopoli’s Philharmonia recording captures this in a positively haunting way. It is unparalleled.

So back to Karajan, with the same orchestra, decades earlier. Perhaps he prepared them for what was to come.

It’s a UK sitting angel pressing, which was surprisingly free of surface noise. As with many other Philharmonia recordings of this period, made possible by Walter Legge’s one-microphone wizardry, the sound is eery and echoes with a resonance that befits the character of the piece.

I am reminded of HvK’s Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, one of my absolute favorite recordings of all time, where the same thing is at work: Legge’s masterful sonics pairing with the dramatic and haunting score. I have a first pressing on HMV, but the CD transfer does it full justice. With the Schubert, HvK’s first movement was intense and sublime at moments, foreshadowing his later BPO recording, and also his Bruckner. The second movement was disappointing, too light and jumpy, not fitting with the tenor of the work.

It should capture more of the dream and memory, as Sinopoli writes.

“The whole work is poised on the edge of nothingness,” he writes. So too is my beloved mother. She taught me to appreciate classical music, and so in a way all things come full circle….but are yet “Unfinished.”

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

5 responses to “Schubert’s Unfinished: The Alzheimers Symphony?

  • Michael Schaffer

    Interesting post! I am a big Sinopoli fan, too, in fact, it was this recording which turned me into one. I picked up the LP maybe 30 years ago, and like many others, I was at first surprised to find his note about “Dream and Memory” in it. Some ridiculed him for this and the only other mini essay he attached to a recording, that of Schumann 2. I read it – and was fascinated by how the performance sounds exactly like that. I also heard him and the Philharmonia perform this symphony live (along with Mahler 5), and it sounded just like that live, too, it had that floating, luminous, otherworldly sound quality to it, just like on the recording. He recorded the Unfinished once more later in Dresden, with a more direct and dramatic approach, but no less interesting

    • Jonathan Riehl

      I’m envious of you having seen him live. The Dresden Schumann cycle is also great, too bad it’s not available on vinyl. I took him annotations on the Schubert 8 as particularly relevant because — after all — the man was trained as a medical doctor.

      • Michael Schaffer

        I saw him live a number of times, with the Philharmonia and with the Staatskapelle Dresden, and as a music student, I also played Mahler 1 under his direction in an orchestra project. I think he was an extraordinary conductor, I would say an “underrated” one, but I don’t really like that word (just like “overrated”). He had a very good ear and very specific ideas how everything should sound. I think he had a very good understanding for the *expressive*, not just coloristic nature of sound as such.
        I see you are an LP enthusiast, so I have to tread carefully now 😉 , but it really shouldn’t matter since the Schumann symphonies were recorded digitally anyway – as indeed almost all his recordings were, since his recording career only started around 1980 (I think there are one or two early DG recordings which were still analog). Whether or not a CD gets you closer to the original studio masters in the case of analog recordings is apparently still debated in some quarters, but when it comes to digital recordings, it certainly does. Whatever the quality of the sound on those studio masters may be in each case.
        I am not too happy with the sound of those Schumann symphonies anyway since they come from the period in which DG monkeyed around a lot with their new “4D” recording process, and many of those recordings do sound dry and brittle – but that’s less a function of the digital recording technologies used there as such than of their monkeying around with the sound to make it brighter and more “brilliant” – but they had done that a lot in the analog era, too. DG represented both the best and the worst at times in German sound engineering.
        Add to that the fact that the recordings were done in the Lukaskirche in Dresden which can sound very bright and “glassy”. But DG also made some very nice sounding recordings there, e.g. the Heldenleben or Bruckner 8 with Sinopoli.

  • Jonathan Riehl

    Yes, those “4D” recordings were a merchandising stunt. But the performances were superb. Again, I’m envious of hearing the Dr. perform live. I have a special issue DGG Dudamel Schumann which puts to rest the technology is not there….and we should ask Polydor for issues on vinyl.

    • Michael Schaffer

      Well, like I said, Jonathan, I know better than to argue with a vynil enthusiast, and why should I, I don’t want to talk you out of enjoying your hobby. But what is the point when the original recording is fully digital anyway? Even if there were real advantages to a fully analog signal path – it’s not there in this case to begin with.

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