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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Overtüre in c-Moll D8 (1811) [7:57]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Streichquartette in F-Dur op.135 (1826) (transcr. string orchestra) [21:33]
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
Concerto funèbre (1939) [22:05]
Ulrike-Anima Mathé (violin)
Streicherakademie Bozen/Frieder Bernius
rec. Mahler-Woche, Grand Hotel Toblach, 23 July 2003
CARUS 83.230 [51:35]
Experience Classicsonline

Frieder Bernius has an astonishingly wide range as a conductor. His other discs for the Carus label give a hint of this, ranging from Mendelssohn through Schoenberg to Ligeti. He is closely associated with the Streicherakademie Bozen, which was founded in 1987, and mixes seasoned players from South Tirol with younger musicians who benefit from their experience. The band generally plays without a conductor, but under Bernius’s leadership they sound very good indeed.
Franz Schubert’s Overtüre in c-Moll is one of his first surviving pieces, and shows the young composer modeling his music on Luigi Cherubini’s overture to the opera Faniska. Falling within the conventions and expectations of such examples there is no great sense of formal originality in the piece, but there are some remarkable ‘almost-wrong’ modulations and little corners which certainly show a willingness to poke convention with a stick to see what will come out. This is refreshingly naïve/sophisticated music with plenty of youthful freshness and an attractive turn of phrase. It’s like pulling the cork on a bottle of young wine, and the Bozen players sound as if they are having great fun with it.
Arrangements of Beethoven’s string quartets for string orchestra turn up from time to time, and the arguments for and against are nothing new. Beethoven’s bold and sometimes even awkwardly eccentric writing in the Streichquartette in F-dur op.135 is robbed of much of its intensity when transcribed for multiple strings. What it gains in scale and range with the increased numbers and the addition of the double-bass it loses in searching intimacy, and even the skilled strings of the Streicherakademie cannot hide this aspect of the music in this form. The beatific writing of the slow “sweet song of calm and peace” movement does sound gorgeous in this setting however, and if it’s Beethoven without the grim grit you prefer, then this recording will help out a great deal. The final impact of the “must it be?” theme has plenty of kick in this recording, and the playing has plenty of dynamism and contrast. My own feeling is however that of the wild and wayward Beethoven being brought safely to the middle of the road in a sweet little rococo vase. The piece becomes just a bit too pretty for my liking – which is just my personal taste; I bow to your own should you respond more positively. I don’t actively dislike this recording or the crack playing on this fine recording, it’s just that the work is transformed into an almost entirely different piece to my ears.                 
I’ve looked at Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre elsewhere on these pages, and find myself immediately preferring the Carus recording to Svetlin Roussev and Arie van Beek’s on the Polymnie label, in the first place simply because the recording sounds so much more natural. That phasey, rather artificial sound has come back to haunt me, and despite some very fine and sensitive playing from Vichy I am glad to have Ulrike-Anima Mathé’s as a replacement. Her violin finds more drama in the music, with some passages howling in the wind like the ghost of Heathcliff. Placing such passion alongside the lonely beauty of the more lyrical moments make for hair-raising musicianship, and what feels like a genuine sympathy and sense of collaboration between the musicians and the spirit and intention of the composer.
The piece was originally entitled Musik der Trauer, but received its present title when the music was revised by the composer in 1959. In 1939, with the Third Reich set upon a course of war and destruction, Hartmann became an ‘internal’ refugee, and his heartfelt expression in this and other pieces from this time was as an artistic declaration, a counteraction to the nightmare power of Fascism in Germany. His anger is expressed in the opening quote of ‘Ye Who are God’s Warriors’, a Hussite chorale which points toward the Nazi betrayal of Czechoslovakia.
There are a number of very good recordings of this piece available elsewhere, of which that of Isabelle Faust and Christoph Poppen on ECM is top of the heap at the moment. If you need convincing of the value of this Carus recording however, try listening to the final Choral without having a lump in your throat, every time. For me, this is what having such recordings is all about. True, you might prefer not to be saddled with Beethoven’s Op.135 arranged for string orchestra, or have to put up with a rather short playing time, but otherwise this is a marvellous performance of timeless music whose value is beyond price.
Dominy Clements            


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