April 02, 2009


Schubert: String Quartet in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” adapted for orchestra as Symphony in D minor by Andy Stein; Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished,” completed by Brian Newbould and Mario Venzago. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, “Trout”; Variations on “Trockne Blumen” for Flute and Piano; Piano Trio (Notturno) in E-flat. Martin Helmchen, piano; Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Antoine Tamestit, viola; Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, cello; Alois Posch, double bass; Aldo Baerten, wooden flute. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     Musical purists will be absolutely appalled by JoAnn Falletta’s new disc of Schubert “symphonies,” and rightly so – but if they pass it by, probably with a scoff, they will be missing the chance to hear some fascinating (if sometimes fascinatingly misguided) music. Andy Stein’s orchestration of the “Death and the Maiden” quartet fits closely with what Schubert might well have done if he had wanted the quartet to be a symphony – which he of course did not. Schubert had 1,000 works to his credit even though he died younger than any other major composer (at 31); he was quite capable of deciding which works ought to be symphonic and which were more appropriate as chamber music. Nevertheless, as a “what if” construction, Stein’s “symphony” is a fascinating one, taking the emotional depth and relatively small scale of the quartet and blowing it up onto a grand canvas, where it fits unevenly but sometimes with surprising effectiveness. The finale, for example, has a level of drama that is quite involving, although quite different from what Schubert intended. The adaptation is wrongheaded at times: in the Andante con moto, for example, a lengthy solo-violin passage serves only to remind listeners familiar with the quartet of how much delicacy is missing in Stein’s version; and in the same movement, one very forceful section comes across, in its orchestral guise, as a pale imitation of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. This “symphony” is unlikely ever to be more than a curiosity, but it is a curiously refreshing way to hear Schubert in unfamiliar form.

     The “completion” of the “Unfinished” is less unfamiliar. In fact, Brian Newbould has completed it before, in a version slightly different from the current one that was recorded by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The myth that Schubert stopped writing this work after the second movement is just that – a myth. A partial, partially orchestrated Scherzo exists, and a fascinating recording some years ago by Max Goberman gave the first two movements and then the remains of the Scherzo, starting as an orchestral piece and then turning into a piano work (in the part that Schubert did not orchestrate) before simply stopping. Newbould’s completion of this movement is in fact fairly satisfying, based as it is on the composer’s extensive sketches. The finale is less so. It is the Entr’acte No. 1 from Rosamunde, which some scholars believe was originally intended as the finale for this symphony – the piece is over-long in the incidental music and in the right key to conclude the “Unfinished.” But it is not a very satisfactory conclusion, fitting neither the mood nor the scale of the first two movements – although Falletta’s rather quick tempo for those two movements helps this “finale” work better. Nevertheless, the poor fit with what has gone before may be the reason Schubert chose not to use this piece in the symphony. In any case, the “Unfinished,” like Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 (for whose finale sketches also exist), is a work that has become so familiar in its traditional form that it is hard to imagine a truly satisfactory completion; this one is about as good as listeners are likely to get, and it is certainly worth a (very occasional) hearing.

     Purists will be much happier with the new PentaTone SACD of the “Trout” quintet and other chamber music, since here the works are played as Schubert wrote them and sound very good indeed, in terms of both performances and sound. The ensemble work in the “Trout” is particularly impressive, with all the instruments playing at soloist level (the performers are in fact soloists in their own right) but with excellent give-and-take and a fine sense of balance. The “Trout” variations in the fourth movement are suitably bright and effective, and the finale, which can be a letdown after the cleverness of all that has gone before, is not one here: in fact, it emerges as clever in its own way, its repetitiveness becoming a form of subtlety. The other works on the SACD are also very well performed. The “Trockne Blumen” variations, based on a song from Die schöne Müllerin, wend their way through a variety of emotions (unlike the song, which is sad in the Romantic manner). Aldo Baerten’s use of a wooden rather than metal flute gives the music a warmer, less brittle character than it would otherwise have – a very nice touch indeed. And the one-movement “Notturno” trio provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion to a very finely honed, well-thought-through recording of Schubert’s music as Schubert intended it to be heard.

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