Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Operatic Overtures
Der Teufel als Hydraulicas (1811/12) [3.24]
Der Spiegelritter (1811/12) [8.32]
Des Teufels Lustschloss (1814, 2nd version) [8.24]
Der vierjährige Posten (1815) [7.21]
Claudine von Villa Bella (1815) [7.59]
Die Freunde von Salamanka (1815) [5.56]
Die Zwillingsbruder (1819) [3.41]
Alfonso und Estrella (1821) [6.22)
Die Verschworenen/Der Häusliche Krieg (1823) [6.46]
Fierabras (1823) [8.05]
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien/Manfred Huss
rec. May 1997, Casino Zögernitz, Vienna, Austria
BIS BIS-CD-1862 [68.43]  

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 1; 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 

No better way to hear this still little known portion of Schubert’s genius.