Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) arr. Arnold SCHÖNBERG/Rainer RIEHN
Das Lied von der Erde
Jane Irwin (mezzo); Peter Wedd (tenor)
Manchester Camerata/Douglas Boyd
rec. ‘live’ and in rehearsal, January 2010, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. DDD
German text and English and French translations included AVIE AV 2195 [60:32]
In 1919 Arnold Schoenberg and a group of like-minded individuals, including Alban Berg and Anton Webern, established in Vienna The Society for Private Musical Performance. The purpose of the Society was to mount well-prepared performances of modern works and, in the case of substantial orchestral scores, to present the music in arrangements for piano or chamber ensemble, thereby widening access to these scores. The Society existed until 1921 and in those three years or so it put on over one hundred concerts, encompassing 154 works. One of the works arranged for the Society was Mahler’s Fourth symphony. The reduced version, made by Erwin Stein, has been recorded a few times (review review).
In 1921 Schoenberg began work on an arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde for the Society. However, he never took his work beyond the first song, presumably because by then the Society had folded. It was not until 1983 that the German composer and conductor, Rainer Riehn (b. 1941) completed the work begun by Schoenberg. The arrangement had been scored by Schoenberg for an ensemble consisting of solo woodwind and strings - presumably quintets - piano, harmonium and percussion. It seems from Peter Davison’s liner-note that Schoenberg intended to have a third violin part, which Riehn discarded; Riehn also added a celesta for the closing bars of ‘Der Abschied’.
As Mr Davison puts it, Schoenberg produced “a chamber version of one of the most subtly-scored of all orchestral works. While much is lost in dynamic range and colour, it is compensated by a new clarity and intimacy.” Whatever one may think of the results – or, indeed, of Stein’s reduction of the Fourth Symphony – I think it’s important to appreciate the very genuine motives behind what Schoenberg and his colleagues did. This arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde is partly an act of homage to Mahler and, even more importantly, stemmed from a desire to disseminate his music to a wider audience at a time when broadcasting and recording were in their infancy.
As it happened, I came to this recording fresh from appraising another version of the Stein arrangement of the Fourth Symphony. That recording had reinforced my view that the Stein version, for all its good original intentions, was really a thinly-scored curiosity. My first reaction to hearing ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ was that this arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde would offer a similar experience. The opening instrumental eruption sounds thin and etiolated. When Peter Wedd sings “Dunkel ist das Leben” for the first time impressions of the scoring are more favourable – Mahler’s original reduces the orchestral texture at this point, of course – but the instrumental passage that follows immediately is frustratingly threadbare; the addition of piano produces a tinkling timbre which is unwelcome. Later on, the passage before “Das Firmament blaut ewig” sounds too brittle while the tempestuous section depicting the vision of the ape is simply puny in scale. One issue is that the balance between singer and accompaniment is altered fundamentally. The original often pits the singer against raging forces; here the tenor ought to be much more comfortable – though I’m not convinced that Wedd always makes it seem like that.
However, matters improve somewhat thereafter. The delicate instrumental tracery at the start of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ doesn’t suffer too much from the reduction in forces – but, then, Mahler’s original scoring is the epitome of delicacy. One can also engage with Jane Irwin’s expressive, warm-toned voice. In ‘Von der Jugend’ the chamber scoring accentuates the chattering nature of Mahler’s accompaniment. In this song I felt that Peter Wedd sounded under pressure at times; such is understandable in the first song with its demanding tessitura but surprised me more here. In ‘Von der Schönheit’ I wasn’t too impressed with the sound of the fast, robust instrumental tutti (2:20 – 3:49) that leads up to “Oh sieh, was tummeln sich für schöne Knaben”; in this version it sounds too brash.
For much of the time the reduced scoring isn’t too great an obstacle in ‘Der Abschied’ because we are used to hearing very spare textures for long stretches of Mahler’s original. However, in the long central instrumental passage (13:44-19:32) the chamber sonorities rob the music of much of its sense of foreboding; one is acutely conscious of a lack of body and I find the piano part intrusive. There is an insufficient sense of growth to the shattering climax and the climax itself (18:32 – 19:15) lacks power and weight; as a result the drama is greatly reduced. Jane Irwin gives a fine account of the mezzo part and nowhere is she more expressive than at “Die liebe Erde allüberall” (25:23) but in this version the accompaniment lacks warmth at this crucial point.
My overall impression is that this chamber version gives us far too little variety of texture and colour. Furthermore, for all the skill of the players, there’s insufficient contrast between the many delicate passages in the score and the bigger moments. I take Peter Davison’s point about extra intimacy but, respectfully, have to disagree with him as to the extra clarity; that’s one thing that Mahler’s original scoring most assuredly didn’t lack. That said, I got more out of hearing this version than I expected or than I did from listening to the Stein version of the Fourth Symphony.
None of my strictures about the sound of the piece in this format should be taken as a criticism of the players. The members of the Manchester Camerata are very exposed indeed in this scoring but they pass the test with flying colours and are sympathetically directed by Douglas Boyd. As to the soloists, Peter Wedd is reliable but I don’t feel he matches up to many of the tenors one has heard in this role in terms of sensitivity or beauty of voice. I enjoyed Jane Irwin’s singing, however. Her tone falls very pleasingly on the ears and she sings with good expression. I heard her sing the role – in the original version – under Rattle last year (review) and I’m glad to have her interpretation preserved on disc; I only wish it could have been with Mahler’s original scoring.
The recorded sound is good and although this recording was taped at a concert the audience is commendably silent; there is no applause at the end.
I’m not sure if this is the first recording of the Schoenberg/Riehn version. A rival version of this same arrangement, which I have not heard, has also been issued, though this was set down some months later (see review by Guy Aron.) There is also another recorded version of Das Lied von der Erde, which uses a slightly expanded version of the Schoenberg/Riehn scoring (review) but since that has “improved” Mahler’s score by involving four soloists I think I’ll be giving that a fairly wide berth.
This reduced scoring is no substitute for Mahler’s wonderful, luminous original. However, if you are minded to investigate Schoenberg’s act of homage then this disc seems to me to be a good place to start.
An act of homage by Schoenberg but no substitute for Mahler’s wonderful, luminous original.