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Franz SCHUBERT (1797Ė1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 Death and the Maiden (1826) arranged for string orchestra by Gustav MAHLER [45.38]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Adagietto in F major for strings and harp, from Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-03) [09.57]
Kiev Chamber Orchestra/Roman Kofman
Ute Blaumer, harp (Adagietto)
rec. Heiligkreuzkirche in Bad Godesberg, Germany, 27-28 November 2003. DDD
CD MDG 601 1315-2
SACD MDG 901 1315-6 [55.47]

This disc from the independent German label MDG features two highly popular works performed by string orchestra. With Ukrainian born, Roman Kofman at the baton, the Kiev Chamber Orchestra pays tribute to Gustav Mahlerís secret passion for the arranging of legendary compositions for chamber orchestra. Schubertís Death and the Maiden is heard in Mahlerís magnificent re-write for string orchestra. The companion work is the famous Adagietto from Mahlerís own Fifth Symphony, music which captivated hearts of a wider audience of filmgoers thirty years ago in director Luchino Viscontiís adaptation of Thomas Mannís novella Death in Venice.
It was common practice around the turn of the twentieth century for conductors to† make arrangements of established chamber works. No doubt it was felt that this would better suit the disposition of the audience. Mahler was in the habit of altering the texts of well known published scores and would frequently make considerable changes to scores he was conducting. Mahlerís friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote that he had remarked to her that, ďOne could take Schubertís themes and start off developing them. In fact that would do them no harm at all, so utterly unelaborated are theyĒ.
Mahler obtained a score of Schubertís eminent Death and the Maiden and made detailed notes indicating how the music could be arranged for string orchestra and given an opportunity to make its way in larger concert halls. What has come down to us is Mahlerís incomplete arrangement marked with copious and detailed notes on instrumentation, dynamics and articulation. He abandoned plans for a complete performance. Long after his death, Mahlerís daughter Anna discovered the unfinished arrangement and brought it to the attention of the Mahler scholars; David Matthews and Donald Mitchell. They extracted the orchestral parts according to Mahlerís annotations and the score was published in 1984.
The celebrated quartet is a fiercely intense work with the theme of death at its heart. Dating from 1824 it was published posthumously. The title Death and the Maiden stems from the reuse in the andante of Schubertís song setting a poem of that title by Matthias Claudius.
The Kiev Chamber Orchestra perform with vitality and the utmost conviction. They are especially effective in the episodes of fiery agitation that pervade the opening movement allegro. They are just as comfortable with the attractive melodies and beautiful harmonies found in the andante con moto and the contrasting vigour and tragic overtones of the scherzo. I love the way the strings provide a real intensity of emotion in the action-packed turbulence of the closing presto.
Mahlerís arrangement is superbly performed here but I still would not wish to be without my favourite recordings of the original. My premier recommendation is the 1965 Switzerland account from the Italian Quartet on Philips 446 163-2; an interpretation remarkable for its sheer technical excellence and impressive imagination. I also admire the exciting 1988 Sheffield account from the Lindsay Quartet on Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403.
Before the immense finale of Mahlerís Symphony No. 5, the famous adagietto provides a brief respite for the listener to reflect and unwind after the emotional upheaval of the first three movements. Surely this is the most beautiful music that the composer ever set to paper, the adagietto serves as a supreme example of Mahlerís mastery of orchestration. Most of the orchestra lies idle, but rather than choosing a conventional string ensemble, the composer adds a single harp to provide an underpinning of motion to the languidly soaring melody. This simple change in instrumentation is pure genius, producing a sonority that I believe has never been matched before or since. One can easily imagine a peaceful sunset amid the composerís beloved Austrian mountains and lakes. Others have described the adagietto as representing a musical love-letter, of the most intimate kind, to his wife Alma.
The Kofman and his orchestra prove ideal exponents in this acclaimed movement. Resisting the temptation to drag the score unnecessarily incandescent playing is drawn from the Kiev players. This is music-making that is not merely highly polished and crammed with fine detail, but thrilling in its intensity and character. There is a curious glissando at point 06.47 (track 5), an effect that I have not previously encountered in this score.
The booklet notes are reasonably interesting and informative, contributing to the admirable presentation by Musikproduktion Dabringhaus and Grimm. I always love the labelís artwork on the front cover. Their choice of Egon Schieleís ĎDer Tod und das Mšdchení from the ÷sterreichische Galerie Belvedere, in Vienna, is splendid and especially appropriate.
At only 56 minutes the total playing time of the disc is far from generous. I played this SACD using my standard CD players and was baffled by not being able to visualise the positioning of the players in the recording studio from the recording balance. Strangely I felt rather more comfortable with my headphones turned around. Puzzling perhaps but not a problem as the crystal clear sound quality is quite outstanding.
A superb release and a certainty to be one of my ĎRecords of the Yearí.
Michael Cookson


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