Death and the Maiden, orchestral adaptation by Andy Stein; Symphony No. 8, completion by Brian Newbould and Mario Venzago. JoAnn Falleta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572051.0.
While many classical-music purists would undoubtedly view this disc as a curiosity at best, it's more than that. In its way, it's rather pleasurable, if you don't mind its being somewhat out of the ordinary.
The first item, based on Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet, is an orchestral adaptation for full orchestra. Not that it's a new idea; the Mahler rendition has been around for quite a while. What makes this adaptation by American composer and arranger Andy Stein different is that it goes beyond simply adding more strings, and fills out the horns and timpani as well. The result is intriguing, if not a little frustrating. The larger forces make the work sound a lot less sinister and intimidating than the lighter quartet, the latter providing a more lively and provocative dance of death. The second movement "chant of death" and its variations in particular seem odd, the orchestra turning things more than ever into a literal funeral march. Needless to say, the big orchestral treatment takes away much of the quartet's transparency as well, replacing it with more body than we might want in so otherwise intimate a work. Still, the big orchestral arrangement does provide a symphonic weight that can be oddly pleasing much of the time.
The completion of the Symphony No. 8 is another matter, however. No one knows why Schubert dropped the symphony after completing only the first two movements. He apparently gave away the parts he had written, and nobody ever performed them in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the two-movement "Unfinished" Symphony has stood the test of time, becoming one of the classical world's sturdy warhorses. Of course, other people over the years have attempted to finish the final two movements, with limited success. This one is as good as any and better than most. English historian and Schubert scholar Brian Newbould reconstructed what he believes were Schubert's intentions for a third movement Scherzo, basing his reconstruction on notes and sketches the composer left behind. Then, for the final movement, Swiss conductor Mario Venzago suggests Schubert's "Entr'acte No. 1" from the Rosamunde music, which Schubert wrote a short while after setting aside the Eighth. Venzago speculates that Schubert intended it originally as a part of the symphony in the first place. I don't know. I suppose the additions work in their way, but I don't see any need for them. I could never accept them as "completing" the symphony. The "Unfinished" is too familiar the way it is for any additions to sound like anything but what they are: additions. When they come along, it's as though we had finished the real symphony and were now merely listening to something altogether different rather than a continuation.
That said, it's still good music, and Naxos does a splendid job recording the Buffalo Philharmonic, which Ms. Falletta conducts with appropriate vim and vigor. The sound is very clean and open, with a fine, smooth response, a wide orchestral spread, and a decent dynamic thrust. My only quibble is that the sonics are a trifle muffled, clouded, as though we were sitting a little farther back in the auditorium than I'm used to, and a little farther back than the orchestral spread would lead us to believe.
Anyway, these adaptations and continuations stand on their own, not as historical pieces of music, naturally, but as pure entertainment.