SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SCHUBERT: Overtures (Complete) – Prague Sinfonia/ Christian Benda – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray

If you have a Blu-ray disc player and love Schubert, this collection should be on your shelves.

Published on January 4, 2012

SCHUBERT: Overtures (Complete) [TrackList follows] – Prague Sinfonia/ Christian Benda – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray NBD0019, 1:56:42 ****½:

The Deutsch listings tell the whole story: Schubert’s production of overtures covers much of his brief creative life, from D. 4 of 1811 through D. 796 of 1823, when the composer seems to have run out of source material for stage works. A good thing, too, given that he wasted his talent on most of the operas he produced, their failure resulting from a combination of bad libretti and Schubert’s almost thorough lack of dramatic sense. Some operas, notably Alfonso and Estrella and Fierabras, have been more or less successfully mounted and recorded. Still, no one comes away from them with the impression that Schubert was a gifted operatician.

But then there are the overtures. There’s charming music even among the earliest examples despite the fact that Schubert hasn’t fully found his musical voice or achieved command of sonata form. Among these early overtures the one for the Singspiel titled Der Teufels Lustschloß (The Devil’s Pleasure Palace) of 1814 stands out for its canny melodic invention and dramatic atmosphere—at least it’s pretty remarkable for a boy of sixteen or seventeen. The overture to Der vierjahrige Posten (The Four-Year Sentry Duty) of the next year is a real charmer. The little Singspiel that it introduces is based on a slight but charming idea as well, the story of a French soldier abandoned by his regiment while standing sentry duty. He settles down in the German town they have left him in and finds love there. When the regiment finally returns after four years, he avoids being shot for desertion by donning his old uniform and pretending to stand sentry again.

Some of Schubert’s overtures are introductions to stage works, such as Johann F. E. Albrecht’s Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (The Devil as Hydraulic Engineer—such an intriguing title I’d like to get a gander at the script of that play!). The most famous of these is the overture to Helmina von Chézy’s laughably inept (or so I’m told) play Rosamunde (1823). Schubert reclaimed this overture, his finest, from an 1820 melodrama titled Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp), which turned out to be a spectacular flop.

Others of the overtures aren’t associated with stage works but fall into the category of concert overture, a fairly new genre in Schubert’s day. The best and most famous of these are the two overtures “im italienischen Stile” (“in the Italian style”) from 1817, when Rossini and his operas (and overtures) were taking Vienna by storm.

As expected, the later overtures such as those to Alfonso and Estrella and Fierabras find Schubert in full command of musical form, dramatic statement, and orchestration, and they supply the most satisfying listening experience. But there is so much here to enjoy that you’ll probably return just as often to the lesser known overtures.

I originally collected these performances on CDs, which Naxos issued as Volumes 1 (D.4 through D. 470) and 2 (Naxos 8.570328 and 8.570328 respectively), but I wanted to experience them in their new, one-volume Blu-ray disc incarnation. The performances are bright, chipper, perfectly aligned with Schubert’s broadening world view, capturing all the charming naïveté of the earlier works and all the consummate musical-dramatic skill of the later ones. They sound very well played by a chamber orchestra—even the later overtures, which have a special litheness where bigger bands tend to lumber.

The recording is a bit more open and airy in Blu-ray than in CD, but as with other Naxos Blu-ray discs I’ve auditioned, the sound doesn’t match that of the finest surround-sound recordings I’ve heard in SACD (or DVD or Blu-ray). The main advantage is having all of the overtures available on a single disc, in very good sound, and for about the same price as the two-volume CD set. If you have a Blu-ray disc player and you love Schubert, this disc should be high on your shopping list.

TrackList:
Der Teufel als Hydraulicus, D. 4: Overture
Der Spiegelritter, D. 11: Overture
Overture in D Major, D. 12
Overture in D Major, D. 26
Des Teufels Lustschloß, D. 84: Overture
Der vierjährige Posten, D. 190: Overture
Claudine von Villa Bella, D. 239: Overture
Die Freunde von Salamanka, D. 326: Overture
Overture in B-flat Major, D. 470
Overture in D Major, D. 556
Overture in D Major, D. 590, “im italienischen Stile”
Overture in D Major, D. 591, “im italienischen Stile”
Die Zauberharfe, D. 644: Overture
Die Zwillingsbrüder, D. 647: Overture
Overture in E Minor, D. 648
Alfonso und Estrella, D. 732: Overture, “Rosamunde”
Die Verschworenen (Der häusliche Krieg), D. 787: Overture
Fierabras, D. 796: Overture

—Lee Passarella




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