Schubert Quartet and Dvorak Quartet
SACD Number: Telarc Surround Hybrid SACD-60610
There was an era, around a hundred years ago, when it was fairly common for conductors to alter the scores of well-known classical works. The reasons were varied and possibly would not hold up now in more modern times. Gustav Mahler was both a well-known (and excellent) conductor but fine composer as well. He even had a special performance that showcased a chorus section in Beethoven's Choral symphony (No. 9) in arrangement for six trombones! Mahler once performed Schubert's Quartet in D Minor, "Death and the Maiden's" slow movement at an orchestral concert. That was widely criticized as robbing the music of its intimacy. Mahler then dropped plans for a complete performance. That was that - for a long time at least. Much later, and long after his death, his daughter, Anna, discovered the complete marked-up score and had it published in 1984. That is what is heard on this new recording.
The title is from a song that Schubert composed based on a poem, of that title, by Matthias Claudius. It contrasts the fear of a young girl something like "(Go away horrible skeleton - do not touch me!) with death's words (I am your friend, I am not fierce, be of good cheer - you shall sleep softly in my arms!)" Those contrasting themes are worked into the score and if you are not familiar with the work, listen and see if you are able to spot the passages of the girl's fears and the passages of solemn and soothing, mocking words of death.
In direct contrast to the background information I knew and found out about the Schubert selection's scoring for string orchestra, I know nothing about the scoring of Dvorak's quartet for string orchestra and after studying the press release and the excellent liner notes (by Richard E. Rodda), I still know nothing. My calculated guess is that conductor Charles Rosekrans is responsible but not credited here. String quartets such as this one by Dvorak, traditionally are scored for two violins, one viola and a cello. You don't simply multiply each of those numbers by four, six, eight or whatever to change to a "correct number" for string orchestra scoring. Dvorak wrote some well-known octets (for eight instruments/players) for strings only and for wind instruments only as well as a famous serenade for strings for chamber or string orchestra. Back in the nineteen seventies, the most famous recorded performance was probably Stowkoski conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as on this recording.
The question arises, why change a musical work from one played by four instruments to one for twenty to forty? I really do not know, just a personal preference thing I guess. What is gained? What is lost? Does it attract new listeners, people who believe they do not like quartet/chamber music? If that is true, let me know. Here the string orchestra is particularly large or large sounding with an underlying feeling of great power. Obviously double basses have been added. If you want just a bit more than a string quartet, Dvorak is well known for his works that add a piano to the strings with a result being piano quartets and quintets. For a real knockout piece by Dvorak, give his cello concerto a spin. It is an extremely accessible and beautiful showpiece. In his famous New World Symphony, Dvorak created the well-known and singable (slowly) "going home" theme. There are strong hints and fragments of it here on this recording. Dvorak composed this and a couple of other works while staying in America. He made good use of some folk songs, tunes, hymns, melodies and even spirituals by incorporating them into a number of his compositions from that era. Here it earned this piece the appellation, "American". Listen closely and see if you can spot some of these passages.
If there is a negative to scoring and changing a quartet to basically a symphonic work for strings only, it is what is lost. Certainly lost is the feeling of intimacy and fine detail. Though my personal preferences tilt to large-scale symphonic works, here I feel that the end result is a bit heavy and ponderous. This seems to be particularly true with the Dvorak selection. Not knowing exactly how either or these pieces should sound makes it tough to evaluate the audio quality. I will quibble a bit by saying that the recording does not give enough detail in the bottom half of the audio spectrum. At times there is almost no hint of the number of cellos playing or the other strings in their lower range. Subtle distinctions tend to get lost. This may bother those music lovers used to hearing every minute detail when only four instruments are playing - an example of more is not always better.