Thursday, July 22, 2010

Schubert - Complete Overtures - Benda, Prague Sinfonia 2 Vols.

Revered for his incomparable Lieder , Franz Schubert was also an avid opera-goer who yearned, largely in vain, for success as a composer of stage works. This disc features several of his less familiar early overtures, from Der Spiegelritter and Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (circa 1811/2) and his first completed opera, the Medieval fantasy Des Teufels Lustschloß (1813/4), to the Overture in B flat (1816). It is hard to believe that such accomplished and effective music was the work of a teenager.

Although Schubert’s dream of success as a composer for the stage largely eluded him, some of his theatrical music was performed during his lifetime. His overtures for Georg von Hofmann’s Die Zwillingsbrüder and for Die Zauberharfe—later transferred to Rosamunde, D. 644—sadly won little praise, though the Overture in the Italian Style, D590 was appreciated for its ‘youthful fire’, and the Overture in E minor, D. 648 was heard in 1821.

You may feel drawn to these discs out of a sense of duty. You know that you ought to know more of Schubert’s overtures than the so-called “Rosamunde” or the Overtures in the Italian Style. So you put a disc on – and are immediately transported with a sense of sheer delight. What is more, this continues throughout these discs as one engaging work follows another. At the end you pour yourself another cup of Earl Grey and start again. Well, at least that was my experience.

You may know all of these works already and have scores or good recordings of them, in which case none of this will come as a surprise. For those who do not, let me explain that the overtures on these discs are mostly relatively early works written for a variety of purposes. Some are for operas or plays, some are concert works.

The notes by Keith Anderson helpfully explain the origins of each Overture. If you enjoy Schubert’s Symphonies, you will certainly enjoy these pieces which are very much in a similar vein and with similar virtues, especially in respect of the very characteristic scoring. Over and over again the listener will find themselves delighted by a turn of phrase, an unexpected harmony or deft orchestration.

Although clearly this is essentially down to the composer, much of the pleasure of the discs are also due to the bright but affectionate performances by the Prague Sinfonia, an expanded version of the Prague Chamber Orchestra. Christian Benda comes from a very distinguished family of Czech musicians and directs performances that are just right for these pieces, avoiding on the one hand blandness and on the other excessive point making. The recording quality is clear and full.

You will have gathered by now that I have had considerable pleasure from these discs. Completeness can be a mixed blessing, but on this occasion I am very glad that Naxos have decided to do this in respect of a category as unexpected as Schubert’s Overtures.==John Sheppard


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