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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
“Wanderer Fantasy” (arr. Joseph James) (2007) [21:28]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasie” (arr. Joseph James) (2007) [31:45]
English Chamber Orchestra
Members of the Schubert Ensemble/Orlando Jopling
rec. Air Lindhurst Studios, London, 7-8 February 2006 (Schubert); 19-20 September 2005 (Schumann) DDD


A very odd duck.  What we have here on this deliciously-sounding recording from Signum Classics - known for their deliciously-sounding recordings - are two transcriptions of two major Romantic pieces for piano into works for string orchestra.  The works in question are Franz Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy in C” and Robert Schumann’s “Fantasie in F”, both for solo piano. The person given credit for doing the transcription is Joseph James who is in fact two people: Stanley Joseph Seeger and Francis James Brown who have collaborated before under the name Joseph James. They’ve done an opera, Sketches from The Scarlet Letter and, more relevant to the disc at hand, a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence along with a movement from the Piano Sonata (op. 80) into something called Piano Concerto after P.I. Tchaikovsky. So these guys had done this sort of thing before. Just why is a question one could ask, but there is nothing mentioned in the booklet to explain why this was done in the first place.  I think “Joseph James” want their work to speak for itself.

Joseph James has transcribed these pieces for string orchestra in order, one presumes, to bring out their romantic lushness; some passages do indeed do this. The opening to the first movement in the Schumann “Fantasie in F” is given a shimmering undercurrent on the violins, whereas on the piano these passages are rendered more crisply. But this only succeeds in spots. The rest of the time the writing in the violins is so limited that what you get is the dry sound of a string quartet, which I don’t think was the intention. This problem emerges in the opening allegro of the “Wanderer Fantasy in C” and it’s only four minutes into the movement that a real orchestral “feel” emerges.  But moments like this do not a work make. Moreover, some passages are rendered almost unrecognizable from the solo piano versions. 

These two masterpieces really don’t need the embellishments of a string orchestra to enhance what was already beautiful in them.  There are passages in both these works as constructed here that do surprise for the richness of texture that a string orchestra can conjure, especially in a robust recording environment.

But what is missing here is that personal interpretive touch that only comes from a soloist face-down in the music. Why gild the lily?  Rudolf Barshai did this for Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony opus 110a and his Symphony for Strings opus 118a, from String Quartets Eight and Ten, but Barshai had the permission of the composer who was then living and both works do add to that composer’s canon.  I have reviewed the Barshai before and I’ve always ended off there as I want to end off here:  While the playing here is technically fine and the physical sound extraordinary, giving these works a broader canvas takes away the intended intimacy of their original setting.  Nothing new is illuminated.  These chimeras, however, might have their odd appeal to fans of Schubert and Schumann who might be interested to see what another fan, Joseph James, saw in them that compelled him (or them) to interpret these works in this particular way. 

Paul Cook 


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