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Debussy/Benno Sachs, Prokofiev/David Matthews and Gustav Mahler/Erwin Stein: Richard Baker (narrator), Katherine Broderick (soprano), Orchestra of St Paul’s, Ben Palmer, Purcell Room, London, 5.10.2009 (BBr)

Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892/1894) – arranged for 12 players by Benno Sachs (1921)

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, op.67 (1936) – arranged for 13 players by David Matthews (1991)

Mahler: Symphony No.4 in G (1899/1900 rev 1901/1910) - arranged for 12 players by Erwin Stein (1921)

It’s not so long ago that the chances of hearing any of the arrangements (apart from the Strauss Waltzes) made by Schönberg and his followers for his Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances) were so remote as to be almost non existent, but this is the third performance I’ve heard this year of the Mahler arrangement, and the second in less than a week.

The fascination with these arrangements, of course, is that we can hear so much more of the musical processes with the composition stripped bare of its orchestral dress. Benno Sach’s arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude would have been relatively easy to make, the three woodwind covering most of the woodwind writing of the original, likewise the strings, with the harmonium and piano covering the four horns and the harps. Sachs, very sensibly, kept the two antique cymbals at the end for their sound makes the end of this pastoral quite exquisite. This performance was slightly too fast to allow the full sensuousness of the writing to be realised, but the dry acoustic of the Purcell Room is no help to achieving the desired musical depiction of desire.

David Matthews’s arrangement of
Peter and the Wolf fared much better for it is a fairly flat, monochromatic, orchestration even in the original. This is a very good version of the piece and Matthews cleverly disguised the fact that he was only using one horn when the wolf is represented, in the original, by three; you would never have guessed this if you didn’t know beforehand. Richard Baker was a marvelous story teller, not quite treating us like children but still doing the voices and characterising each person and animal well. Children do like stories where there are lots of different voices. At the end Baker told a lovely story about some children who had heard him narrate the piece and they didn’t like the ending, where the duck can be heard in the wolf’s stomach, for the wolf had swallowed her alive, so they had written a happy end. Baker read their scenario and it was much appreciated by all.

Erwin Stein’s version of Mahler’s
4thSymphony is something of a triumph in managing to convey everything Mahler wanted with such reduced forces. The dry acoustic did the sumptuous music no favours in terms of sonority but it did score in allowing every strand of the music to be heard very clearly. However, it never really took off; well played, certainly, but without that special spark which could lift the performance from the ordinary. Last Thursday, at the Wigmore Hall, players from the Nuremberg International Chamber Music Festival, conducted by Peter Selwyn, gave a splendid performance, full of the wonder and power necessary to bring this work to life. Tonight Palmer and his group failed to reach the elysian heights of that Nuremburg performance. Also, Katherine Broderick was the wrong choice to sing the child’s view of heaven in the finale. She is too much of a diva, with a huge voice, which spoiled the childish vision. I don’t know what the answer is here, an operatic voice is surely wrong for this delicate music, but a child’s voice is too small and wouldn’t be able to carry the line. Oddly, for two lines of the poem she actually achieved the correct voice, but it was soon lost, back into operatic mode.

A valiant attempt, perhaps in the wrong venue, to display this music, but the Mahler, in particular, needs more insight and direction from the conductor.

Bob Briggs

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