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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 4 (arranged by Erwin Stein)
Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Thomas Christian Ensemble
rec. Schloß Esterhazy, Eisenstadt, Austria, 28-30 May 2004. DDD
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 603 1320-2 [55í23]

In the nineteenth century, many composers Ė including Mahler - transcribed their own and other peopleís work. In an age before recordings, this meant more people could get hold of a playable version of a large piece of music. The Society for Musical Performances, however, existed primarily for composers wanting to study "how" compositions evolved by reducing them to the sparest skeletons. Their transcriptions were not for entertainment or casual listening. Any evaluation of Erwin Steinís transcription for the Society of Mahlerís Fourth Symphony must be made bearing this in mind, because itís not meant to sound like Mahler Ďliteí, nor is it meant to be "beautiful" for its own sake. Nonetheless, a good performance can make all the difference. Of the four recordings of Steinís transcription, this new version, by the Thomas Christian Ensemble, is far and away the best, so much so, that it is a fulfilling musical experience in its own right.

From the very first bars, the Ensembleís commitment to the piece shines through. The simplicity of the orchestration makes each group of sounds distinct: winds setting out a theme, while the strings curve seductively around them. The Schnellkappe is particularly attractive, the bells not too dominant Ė "their time will come" - and the overall effect is of a delicately paced dance. This is no clumsy Ländler, but more like a minuet danced by putti, a reference to the vision of Heaven to come. Overall, the transcription brings out the airy, dance-like character of the symphony, and this performance, more than any of the others, emphasizes its almost baroque quality. Tiny details become clear in close-up: the flattened toot toot of the harmonium introduces humour with the sparest of notes, the solo flute dances around the piano part, imitating its steady tread. In the second movement, a solo violin represents Freund Hein, the fiddler who leads the dance of death. The pianos play an essential part in the transcription for they hold together the whole structure of the piece. They donít have a "part", but come in at intervals when depth is needed. Here they are performed with real warmth of tone, firm enough to keep the piece on course, yet sensitive to the other parts. It is especially effective in the Ruhevoll, which Mahler himself told Bruno Walter reminded him of the statues of medieval saints, their hands solemnly folded across their chests, but whose calm faith in a better afterlife lights their faces with gentle smiles. The piano part adds resonant gravitas, which, together with the solo violin creates a lovely sense of ebb and flow. Its contemplative tone makes the dramatic "sunrise" coda all the more glorious and uplifting.

In the last movement the piece reaches its apotheosis. It was the first part to be written, all else leads up to it, and any performance stands or falls on it. This is the only recording of the transcription that uses a really top notch soloist, and it makes all the difference, particularly as the singer has to adjust to the reduced orchestral forces. Oelze is blessed with unusual purity of tone, so the bell-like clarity of her voice matches the piece perfectly in purely aesthetic terms. Moreover, she is far more experienced than the other soloists: for her, emotional warmth and sensitivity flow naturally. She seems to sing with the smile of the saints, beatified: Elftausend Jungfrauen zu tanzen sich trauen is so beautifully phrased it sent goose-bumps up my spine, and Iíve heard a few good versions in my time. Although I personally have a weakness for singers with fragile voices, a voice as genuinely lovely as this is much more in keeping with Mahlerís intention, that that divine bliss conquers all earthly sorrow. It was a powerful message for him, and should be sung with convincing Seligkeit (heavenly bliss). Oelzeís background in early music and the baroque adds to her appreciation of Mahlerís imagery: Keine Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die unsrer verglichen kann warden (no music on earth can be compared to ours).

What makes a performance work may have a lot to do with the vision the performers have of it. In this case, the Thomas Christian Ensemble have clearly thought through the transcription and the original symphony. As Stein tried to encapsulate the structural logic, they have tried to express the emotional significance. Contrary to the usual clichés, Mahler was not obsessed by death per se, but in the overcoming of it, through nature, transcendence, resurrection. He loved life too much to make light of its loss. The Fourth Symphony is the apotheosis of the first part of his career: after this he would leave the world of Wunderhorn for new pastures. Hence the powerful emotional release of Das himmlische Leben, a vision of life beyond death and worldly pain. Even the massacred 11,000 virgins sing. There is another life, greater than that we know on earth. He called it a humoresque, after all. The Thomas Christian Ensemble play with almost tactile joyfulness, that itís almost infectious. The music dances along, negotiating Steinís spare outlines with aplomb. In the final movement, everything comes together in an explosion of genuinely felt awe and wonder. The version by the Linos Ensemble comes close but doesnít quite have this extra panache. Kenneth Slowikís version, with the Smithsonian Chamber Players, has quite a different emphasis, as he focused on the transparency of instrumentation, using period instruments. Much as I respect Avie Recordís policies, their recent recording, alas, has little going for it musically. This version therefore has it all: vivacity of playing, warmth and humour and a clear, focused vision of where the music is going. Moreover, it has an exceptionally good, experienced soloist in Christiane Oelze. It is the one version that comes closest to capturing both the logic of the transcription and the gloriousness of the original symphony. Itís simply in a league of its own.

Dabringhaus and Grimm (MDG) are an audiophile company who make great efforts at warm, resonant sound reproduction. This version was recorded at the music room at the Schloß Esterhazy, which adds to the ambience.

Anne Ozorio



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