OAE / Jurowski / Hough, Royal Festival Hall, London

By Michael Church
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Vladimir Jurowski and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment opened their South Bank season with a new-old work, and a new-old instrument. We all know Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony: its two movements stand like monoliths in the musical landscape.

Periodically, other works by Schubert have been bolted on – the finale of his Third Symphony, or, more recently, his incidental music for Rosamunde. But given that bold spirits have successfully completed works by Mahler, Bruckner, Berg and Elgar, it was only a matter of time before someone gave Schubert the treatment, too.

Enter Anton Safronov. Feeling "the urge to take up and complete a song begun by someone else", and deciding that Schubert's sketches for his third movement indicated a new direction, he had gone to work. Since there were no sketches for the final movement, he would invent one with ideas mined from Schubert's late piano pieces. He felt himself to be "a co-creator with Schubert", and believes he has managed to cross whatever creative Rubicon it was that stopped Schubert in his tracks. The conductor Vladimir Jurowski has championed his enterprise.

After the last notes of the second movement had died away, we were taken into a tone-world full of familiar textures and gestures: Safronov is good at pastiche. But as the same motifs re-appeared with increasing frequency, and as the atmosphere became redolent of a bandstand in a park, the pastiche wore thin.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave it absolutely all they had, and the brass had wonderful fizz, but, ultimately, the movement felt like a wind-up toy. The finale was a different kind of pastiche, with strenuous modulations and endless climaxes, but it was no livelier. A favourite architectural form in the 18th century was the broken column, an unfinished pillar standing in proud isolation: that is how we should cherish Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, at once tragic and superb.

The OAE's new-old instrument, meanwhile, was a magnificent rediscovery: an 1876 Steinway praised to the skies by Brahms himself, and on which Stephen Hough played the composer's First Concerto. Under Hough's brilliant hands, its bell-like tones surged effortlessly over the orchestra: this must be as close as we'll ever get to the experience of its original audience.

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