What wonderful music this is! While I have heard a Schubert
overture a few times during concert-going years, this area of
the composer’s oeuvre is almost completely unknown to
me. After hearing this recording, I realize that is my loss.
As is often said or written in discussions of Schubert’s
orchestral writing, the shadow of Beethoven is omnipresent.
That shadow is more visible here because the Haydn Sinfonietta
Wien performs using original instruments. Consequently, the
sound and performance style are similar to what we have come
to expect from period instruments performing Beethoven: a smaller
body of strings using a minimal amount of vibrato, with winds
and brass well to the fore, and timpani played with hard mallets.
This sound-world is entirely convincing, save for a few instances
where I yearned for a richer, more substantial bass line, something
only possible with a great number of cellos and basses. However,
Schubert’s wonderful writing for the brass, most especially
the horns, sounds glorious with the variegated colors of period
brass, as opposed to the more homogeneous sound we would hear
from modern instruments. In short, the benefits of using period
instruments greatly outweigh any negatives.
The program is chronological, thereby giving the listener a
view into Schubert’s progress as he relies less on models
and gains confidence in his own dramatic voice. As conductor
Manfred Huss points out in his notes, the wind writing is especially
demanding, and it is thrilling to hear it performed with such
virtuosity by these players.
Each work proffers inventive and impressive music, whether it
be the flute arabesques on Der Spiegelritter, the timpani
writing of Des Teufels Lustschloss, the horn writing
that begins Die Zwillingsbrüder - the examples are
too numerous to list. Additionally, Schubert’s mastery
of structure and form develops right before your ears! Yes,
if you know Beethoven’s Overtures, some of this material
will sound familiar. Die Verschworenen/Der Häusliche
Krieg could easily be mistaken as the work of Rossini, and
the powerful downward octave drops over powerful timpani rolls
in Alfonso und Estrella left me wondering if Bruckner
knew Schubert’s orchestral writing. Yet there are just
as many moments where the beautiful melodic writing, unexpected
harmonic shifts and unerringly paced climax could only be the
work of Schubert.
The Haydn Sinfonietta Wien plays with virtuosity and unflagging
energy, featuring crisp articulation and beautiful ensemble
work from each section. This is music that both conductor and
orchestra clearly believe in. The many solo passages are rendered
with considerable grace and beauty, most especially those for
flute and oboe. The timpani player is clearly having a ball,
and that fabulous horn writing is thrillingly realized.
The most obvious rival to this CD are the two Naxos recordings
released in the last few years, the complete overtures performed
by the Prague Sinfonia, led by Christian Benda. I have not heard
those performances, but they have received almost unanimous
positive accolades (review
2). A comparison of timings reveals that, for the most part,
Benda and Huss often come within seconds of one another, with
the exception of Fierabras, where Benda’s performance
is almost 50 seconds longer. I would suspect that Benda uses
a larger orchestra than Huss, but the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien
is currently the only the one to offer performances of these
works on original instruments. Their sound, as well as their
performances, make for thrilling listening.
The notes, written by conductor Huss, are a model of their kind:
informative and compelling. His passion for this music leaps
off the page - and through the speakers. The recording itself
is very fine, though not matching what Bis would accomplish
today. I would have liked to hear the original Koch/Schwann
recording to compare what BIS's re-mastering has improved. The
sound in tuttis becomes somewhat congested and the timpani tend
to become boomy above forte. Yet the overall picture
is bright and analytical, allowing a wealth of inner detail
to emerge. The musician’s enthusiasm for this program
is plainly evident, making this an entirely engaging hour-plus.
There is no better way to hear this still little known portion
of Schubert’s genius.
David A. McConnell