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Schubert/"James" & Schumann/"James"

Wanderer Fantasy in C after Franz Schubert (D. 760)
Fantasie in F after Robert Schumann (op. 17)

English Chamber Orchestra with Members of the Schubert Ensemble/Orlando Jopling

Signum SICD095

This is an intriguing and, for some maybe, a disturbing release. We are told that "the self-referential piano music is given a more general significance" here, whatever that means...

Arrangements of anything and everything are all the rage nowadays, especially if they provide exposure for relatively unknown musicians. Recently we have been invited to think again about Schubert's late masterworks in Victor Kissine's orchestration of the String Quartet in G major (Kremerata Baltica).

"Joseph James" doesn't exist as an individual; "he" is two composers who have collaborated in producing these scores, and their creations have been conducted with polish and some flair by Orlando Jopling (pictured).

Schubert's hectoring Wanderer has long been an unfavourite of mine in the Schubert canon; it has previously been expanded by Liszt for piano and orchestra. Lightened by scoring for strings alone, it is engaging and enjoyable to hear; for me a decided success.

Schumann's Fantasie, by contrast, is for everyone a top favourite in the piano repertoire, and one of those works that seeks to make you feel that the piano is not a percussion instrument (especially in the meltingly beautiful final Langsam getragen). I find this version heart-warming and convincing.

The sound quality is good and the disc worth exploring, if short measure at 53 mins.

Further comment:

These transcriptions work – there is no doubt. And as an advertisement for the two-in-one composer Joseph James, they would be interesting curiosities that would fit into many concert programmes.

In both cases, however, and reinforced by the modern sound of the recording, what we hear is far more schmaltzy and indulgent than the originals. They claim to be faithful, authentic; to me they are far inferior to –say- how Schoenberg liberated the spirit of Brahms in his orchestral version of the Piano Quartet Op 25.

Schumann’s Fantasie is almost universally loved and revered; the pleasant but undemanding experience of hearing the piece for string soloists and chamber orchestra is significantly less inspirational.

Likewise, the Liszt Schubert Wanderer arrangement for piano and orchestra, preserves the best of the percussive texture while ironing out the jarring effect of the original’s constant repeated notes. The Joseph James is again easy on the ear, but something significant is lost.

Joseph James has (have?) a fine reputation for film music and arrangements (a requiem made out of bits of Bach, a new Tchaikovksy piano concerto from Souvenir de Florence and the Piano Sonata Op 80, for example; and one can see why.

Signum usually have impeccable documentation, but here, we could have done to know more about the transcriptions (not even date of composition is given), even at the cost of less about the originals.

A lukewarm impression all round, though plaudits for the excellently engaged playing.

Ying Chang

Peter Grahame Woolf

see also Schubert/Kissine String Quartet in G major (Kremerata Baltica/Gidon Kremer)