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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden” (1824) [41:10]
Arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet in F major, Op.96, “American” (1893) [28:26]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Rosekrans
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, London, 12-13, 15, 19 August 2002.
TELARC CD80610 [69:35]

Critics often pounce on arrangements of pieces written for small forces which have been expanded – usually for an orchestra of one kind or another. The string quartet, held to be one of the most perfect of chamber music combinations, has in the past been almost sacred in this regard for some, and Mahler’s performance of the slow movement from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet at an orchestral concert in 1894 was condemned as depriving the work of its intimacy. As a result of this any plans for a complete performance were abandoned, but Mahler had marked up a score of this work with indications as to how it might be prepared for string orchestra, and it was from these notes that David Matthews and Donald Mitchell created the arrangement we have here, published in 1984.

Like any such arrangement, whether it be Jimi Hendrix for string quartet or J.S. Bach for jazz combo, my standpoint is to fight the instinct of referring to the original, but rather to ask if the piece works in its own terms – after all, the original is there to be listened to whenever you want, and needs no rescuing from some kind of musical wrecking ball. As Mahler correctly identified, Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D.810 lends itself very well to arrangement for strings. There is plenty of variety in the colouration which the composer and arranger employs, with those typical pizzicato accompaniment touches, transpositions of voicing and the use of mutes in some of the variations of the theme in that famous Andante con moto providing plenty of interest and atmosphere. The biggest problem is uniting an entire string section to play figurations and lines created for a soloist, and in this the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra strings are only barely successful at times: the more exposed moments hang together, but only just, and one is kept at the edge of one’s seat for the wrong reasons some of the time. 

Telarc’s recording is warm, and the rich extra of the double bass is a bonus in this music. This is however an aspect which highlights the differences between what can be a taut argument between four players, and a more evenly ‘ironed-out’ texture of massed strings. One way of creating more drama in this setting is in extremes of dynamic, and while Charles Rosekrans can get a nicely hushed sound from this ensemble I have heard more dynamic playing from specialised string orchestras such as the Moscow Soloists. All of the comments above apply almost equally to Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, Op.96, and here it is also interesting to note how such an arrangement differs from the approach Dvořák has to string writing in his symphonic output – in other words, if he had been writing for string orchestra, this would have been a different piece entirely. There are a number of places where the inner lines receive an added thickness which makes some passages seem a little laboured, and despite my intention to take these versions on their own terms, I found myself longing to hear a solo voice – in the soaring melodies of the Lento for instance.

The result of all this makes me wonder who would really want this CD: I mean, really want to own it, rather than merely like to have it as an interesting extra. If the music is part of your collection already then this won’t reveal any secrets you may suspect remain uncovered by the original string quartet versions, and Mahler’s arrangement is interesting and effective, but doesn’t tell us anything new about Mahler. If however you like the string orchestra ‘sound’, and like the idea of having it in the setting of some of the deservedly most popular quartet music ever written, then this will be a recording which may tick enough boxes to make it worth your while.

Dominy Clements


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