SCHUBERT: String Quartet in d, “Death and the Maiden” (Orch. arr. by Andy Stein); Symphony No. 8 in d, “Unfinished” (completed by Brian Newbould) – Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/ JoAnn Falletta, conductor – Naxos 8.572051, 77:59 ****:
Leave it to the enterprising folks at Naxos to come up with this excellent concept album. This arrangement of Schubert’s seminal and convulsively dramatic quartet based on his song “Death and the Maiden” is not the same as Gustav Mahler’s string quartet version. This one has been done for full orchestra, and by and large it is enormously successful. Mr. Stein has a fine sense of Schubertian orchestral style and technique, and one is hard pressed to not hear this piece as being scored by the master. Stein has opted for four horns instead of two horns and three trombones that were used in the “Great” C-major symphony, and though this works very well I am not sure that the presence of trombones in this particular piece might not have added a degree of drama and depth not otherwise present. But this is a nit—hearing the piece in this guise is illuminating, though I doubt it will replace the original in anyone’s mind or listening habits. I do disagree with one point made in the notes that the work suffers from a limited audience because it is not in orchestral form—this is silly. One can make an argument that the string quartet offers a tighter and more focused experience, and in fact the one weak point that I find in this whole concept exposes itself in the last movement, where the orchestra cannot keep up with the dramatic fireworks provided by a string quartet – more personal, more tragic. Nonetheless a fine effort and I am glad to have heard this.
The completion of Schubert’s famous “Unfinished” is the one by Brain Newbould. Many historians think that Schubert did indeed intend to complete this work—despite a hundred years of justifying its two-movement structure—because the composer became ill and had started 20-odd scored measures of a scherzo. Newbould completes this movement in fine fashion, though I doubt anyone would suggest that this effort in any way surpasses what the composer would have done. The last movement is taken from the Entr’acte from the incidental music for Rosamunde, something some scholars think may have been intended as the finale for this symphony–though this remains speculative–as the music was written right after Schubert set aside the work, and is also in B-minor. It works well, but ultimately not well enough as one does feel a little letdown after all that has gone on before. Nonetheless, it is a possibility and is as good a theory as any.
Falletta and company play this music very well even though the Buffalo orchestra sounds a tad not together in spots. But the spirit is certainly there, and while I cannot recommend this “Unfinished” over Bernstein (DGG) and a number of other classic recordings, it is in a slightly separate category—unless one want to play just the first two movements—and holds up well against many others. Falletta is a superb conductor on any front, and Naxos has captured the BPO’s sound very well in an upfront and vivid recording. Recommended for creative programming and excellent performances.
— Steven Ritter