Schubert symphony 14076

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony “Death and the Maiden” (after D.810, orch. András Vass)
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Rosamunde Overture D.644
Texas Music Festival Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager (symphony), Mei-Ann Chen (Hindemith)
Moores School Symphony Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager (overture)
rec. live, 20 November 2021 (overture), 11 June 2022 (symphony), 25 June 2022 (Hindemith), Moores Opera House, University of Houston, USA
High Definition Tape Transfers 14076 [77]

The label High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT) as their name suggests, is usually associated with hi-fidelity restorations of classic analogue recordings. However, there is a smaller but active part of their catalogue that focuses on modern live recordings. I listened to the standard CD stereo version but a quick look at the HDTT website shows that this new release can be downloaded “5.0 Channel Immersive Surround Sound” which in the UK as I write in March will cost you £20.34. My interest is in the repertoire not the recording and I was intrigued by the “first international recording” of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden String Quartet D.810 arranged for full orchestra. For those who find the prospect of this masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire arranged for orchestra an anathema – look away now. Personally, I do enjoy a good arrangement which complements and does not replace the original. George Szell did a great job with Smetana’s From My Life Quartet and I enjoy Yan Pascal Tortelier’s take on Ravel’s Piano Trio more than perhaps I should. So I was certainly open to this new version.

The good news is that arranger András Vass has done a very good job indeed. Sadly the documentation accompanying this disc, whilst mentioning some of Vass’ background, give no explanation to the how, why or when of this transcription. Not that visiting his own website tells you that much more but rather wonderfully he does allow you to view/download the score of his arrangement here. The same website indicates that the orchestra he conducts in Hungary has also made a live recording of this work – a brief excerpt of the closing pages can be heard here or complete here. To be blunt even the single minute or so of live playing from Hungary shows that orchestra is in a different league to the Texas Music Festival Orchestra. Again the liner fails to give any information about this American orchestra but after listening to these recordings several times they turn out to be exactly what they sound like – a good student/college/young professional group. Throughout the entire disc there are some really lovely individual moments – usually from wind principals – but all too often there are slips in ensemble, intonation and mis-calculations in terms of actual performance. To balance this there is energy and enthusiasm a-plenty and as a record of a single performance, especially for those involved, this would be a thoroughly enjoyable memento. But for repeated listening this simply does not suffice. The Moores school orchestra play the Schubert overture, accounting for audible difference in the standard of the playing from the other works.

The positives are the engineering which is good throughout – the percussion in the Hindemith is very well caught for example, the interpretations which are intelligent and appropriate and – in the case of the main work – Vass’ fine arrangement. This latter is interesting in that Vass does not pastiche Schubertian style but neither does he rethink/rework the piece in the way say Berio does in Schubert. Vass uses a pretty standard Brahmsian orchestra although the manner in which he writes for pairs of wind and quite actively for the trombones reminded me (in a good way) of Dvořák. Franz Anton Krager conducts the two Schubert works – the quartet works well, the Rosamunde Overture is simply beyond the capabilities and sensibilities of the orchestra. The too muscular brass which is effective in the quartet and quite exciting in the Hindemith simply overplays. The upper strings are taxed both collectively and individually by Schubert’s writing and there are a couple of wince-inducing moments – not a “keeper”.

The live environment is also evident by the presence of quite a lot of up-beat/introductory sniffs from the podium in the quartet as well as a little audience noise and the retention of very enthusiastic applause (and cheering) at the end of each work. More unusual – almost comical – is what sounds for all the world like a phone alarm tinkling away at 6:02 in the second movement of the quartet. This same movement features one of the variations where Vass gives the arpeggiating accompaniment to the flutes (rather beautifully played) and the family resemblance to Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 is both striking and something I had never thought of previously. The uncredited leader of the orchestra is given a couple of solos in this movement too which they attack with energy and occasional inaccuracy and over-forced tone – comparison with the Hungarian leader’s playing is very telling. And therein lies the problem with this performance – it is simply too littered with executional flaws to make repeated listening a pleasure.

The same is true of Hindemith’s wonderful Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by C. M. Weber [for some reason the disc names the piece Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes OF C. M. Weber]. The wind, brass and percussion have a ball and most of the time sound very good although glitches of ensemble and the occasional split note are naggingly present. The brass playing is too often too loud and verging on the brash. This is such a showpiece work that you can choose any number of the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors to listen to and frankly any will be better than this performance at this price point. Here Mei-Ann Chen conducts and the choices of tempi and overall shape are very sensible and well-controlled.

I assume that most of HDTT’s energies are directed at the hi-res download market since the quality of their CD packaging and presentation is so low and seems like an afterthought (hence no catalogue number for this release on the disc itself). The liner is a single poorly cut-out folded piece of card that could have been printed at home – the spine of the case calls the main work “Death and a Maiden” – generally the artwork of the CD is poor with the somewhat misleading listing of the orchestras indicative of the poor proofing of the packaging. This to me is an example of where the interest in the “carrier” outweighs the value of the “content”. So if the “5.0 Channel Immersive Surround Sound” is what the listener is seeking this might well be the recording for you. Certainly this arrangement of Death and the Maiden is effective and impressive and deserves to be more widely known. Interestingly the composer John Foulds also transcribed the work in the late 1920’s – its a score I have tried to track down as yet with no luck. In the past I have enjoyed HDTT’s restorations of great recordings and I am sure I will continue to do so. This disc, however, is a considerable disappointment.

Nick Barnard

Availability: High Definition Tape Transfers