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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Arpeggione Sonata in A minor for cello and strings, D821 (1824) (transcr. cello and string orchestra by Luigi Piovano) [25:20]
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (1824) (transcr. string orchestra by Gustav Mahler) [41:21]
Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia/Luigi Piovano (cello)
rec. May 2013, Studio 1, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy. DDD
ELOQUENTIA EL1446 [66:41]

This, as the football pundits say, is “a game of two halves”. I admit to deriving a great deal more pleasure from the second item on this recording, which is Mahler’s arrangement for strings of Schubert’s most celebrated quartet. Its novelty is part of the reason but I am also seduced by the depth of sonority and sensitivity of the strings of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. They are particularly adept in the second variations movement, their subtle gradations of dynamics and phrasing lending a sophistication to a version which can easily sound precious and bombastic. The delicacy of the end of that Andante con moto is exquisite.

Another reason for my preference for this over cellist Piovano’s own arrangement of “L’arpeggione” is that he plays a five-stringed, period cello which is from 1795 and sounds it; the strings have obviously been instructed to play correspondingly sans vibrato and the whining effect is not always grateful on the ear. However, fans of period instrument style will perhaps enjoy its plaintiveness more than I.

The recording itself is not faultless: the acoustic is rather cavernous, yet the microphones have been placed too close to the soloist-director, hence each phrase is preceded by an all-too-audible upbeat sniff. This is much more noticeable in the first item. Nor do I feel that Piovano, either as a result of the limitations of the instrument he plays or of deliberate choice, achieves the requisite variety of tone we hear from exponents such as Maria Kliegel on the excellent super-bargain Naxos label in the cello-piano version or the transcription for viola played by Yuri Bashmet in an equally recommendable recording.

Yet the Mahler transcription is mesmerising: intense, thrilling and liberated in a way too few recordings are these days. The Presto finale is simply marvellous: a swirling, demonic tour de force that gives new life and urgency to one of Schubert’s most compelling conceits. I would buy this disc for that movement alone.

Ralph Moore