Schubert: Alfonso und Estrella, arranged for Harmoniemusik (CD review)

Linos-Ensemble. CPO 999 807-2.

Austrian Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was a superb composer of orchestral music, sacred music, instrumental music, chamber music, incidental music, and Lieder, but people have never seemed to appreciate his few attempts at opera. Of course, most of Schubert's works never became famous until after his death, yet even then the public never appeared to take much notice of things like Alfonso und Estrella, Fierrabras, Die Zwillingsbruder, and Die Verschworenen, while they loved his symphonies, chamber works, song cycles, and such. I suppose it's because Schubert never had much feel for the drama, story, or characterizations necessary for big operatic stage productions, but that's only a guess.

In any event, what we have on this 2002 CPO release is an arrangement of his opera Alfonso und Estrella for harmoniemusik, that is, for chamber ensemble--specifically on this disc for wind octet and double bass--that displays the composer's unique sense of charm and playfulness. Performed purely instrumentally, the opera becomes a delightful series of interrelated vignettes, sounding much as one expects of this man--refined, graceful, and elegant, yet with a sprightly air and an always smiling demeanor.

Arranged for winds and bass in 1996 by Andrea N. Tarkmann, this reworking of the opera nicely solves the problem of the words and characterizations by eliminating them entirely. Moreover, the Linos-Ensemble carry out their duties with commendable polish, although not always with as much energy or zeal as I might have liked. Still, their cultured urbanity probably fits the mood of the opera better than I imagine.

If there are any minor drawbacks, I'd say the Linos-Ensemble sounds a tad small for the music, turning the opera into basically a chamber work. You have to get used to that. Also, it's fairly brief, the entire arrangement lasting only a little over fifty-some minutes.

Nevertheless, CPO's sonics are commendable: very fluent, effortless, and clean. The winds--two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two bassoons--and the double bass integrate smoothly across the sound stage, producing a solid, if not always very dynamic, audio picture.

As a side note, I also enjoyed CPO's cover painting, a reproduction of Manuel Barron y Carrillo's "Fiesta in Sevilla." It not only lends a note of atmosphere to the music, it's far more enjoyable than looking at a portrait of the composer, the face of the conductor, or some art department's idea of contemporary design. This is, overall, an unusual and recommendable disc.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa