Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (arr. Erwin Stein) [51:17]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Nuits d’Été (arr. David Matthews) [28:34]
Heather Shipp (mezzo)
Orchestra of The Swan/David Curtis
rec. live, 25 March 2009, Birmingham Town Hall. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD 245 [79:50]
In 1919 Arnold Schoenberg and a group of like-minded individuals, including Alban Berg and Anton Webern, established The Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna. As Christopher Morley puts it in his useful booklet note, this was “in the nature of a concert-giving commune”. The aim was to put on good performances of modern works and, in the case of substantial orchestral scores, to present the music in arrangements for piano or chamber ensemble. This was at a time when access to large-scale pieces was particularly limited since the public of the day didn’t enjoy the access to music through broadcasts or recordings that we now take for granted. So the arrangements of orchestral pieces made for the Society performed the same function as piano arrangements of, say, the Beethoven symphonies had been doing for decades in terms of making music more widely available. The Society existed until 1921 and in those three years or so it put on 117 concerts, encompassing 154 works.
One of the arrangements was Erwin Stein’s reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Stein’s scoring requires flute, oboe, clarinet (all with the usual doublings), piano (four hands), percussion, string quartet, double bass and harmonium. It will be noted that among the instruments missing are bassoon, harp and timpani. The piano and harmonium fill in a lot of the harmonies.
I was pretty sure that I‘d heard this arrangement before and it transpired that I’d reviewed its first-ever recording, an Australian production, back in 2003. Looking back at that review - but only after I’d completed my listening to this SOMM release - I see that I wrote the following:
“I must admit to some ambivalence about this recording. I find the reduced scoring by turns enlightening and frustrating….[the liner note] argues that this version imparts a unique transparency to Mahler’s lines, allowing many details to come through with far greater clarity than is possible in the full scoring. To some extent I’d agree….I’ll admit there’s a certain piquant fascination in spotting where familiar lines have been reallocated (and, on first hearing, in trying to guess which of the instruments will get a particular solo, normally played by an absent instrument.) However, the reduced scoring robs us of Mahler’s complicated but very finely calculated orchestral palette. Consequently, I’m bound to say that I found more instances of frustration than of enlightenment when listening.
For much of the time the re-scoring is surprisingly effective, no doubt because this symphony has the lightest orchestration of all the nine. However, to make perhaps the most obvious point of all, it’s the climaxes that really suffer. Worst of all is the great moment of fulfilment at the climax of the third movement. Here, above all, I felt short-changed. The sun just doesn’t burst through the skies here - how one misses the pounding timpani and pealing horns!”
My listening notes for this Somm performance show that I haven’t really changed my mind. The first movement, which David Curtis takes at a lively pace, sounds somewhat brittle - and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense - and the more grotesque aspects of Mahler’s writing come out well. There’s also a good rustic feel to the second movement, especially from the use of the clarinet. Overall, however, for my taste there’s too much unrelenting perkiness in the sound of these two movements. The heavenly third movement features a lovely cello line at the beginning - beautifully played here - but although there are passages of real felicity there’s no escaping the fact that the climax sounds puny. Mahler’s rapt conclusion comes off well. However, there’s a certain frisson when one hears a full orchestra playing as softly as they can at the end of this movement - and in other places - and a chamber ensemble can’t quite replicate that. The reduced scoring perhaps works best in the finale. Heather Shipp is a mezzo and her voice is quite rich. Her timbre prevents her from conveying the light, innocent naivety that the best sopranos bring to this music. In fact her voice is somewhat out of scale with the instrumental scoring.
The playing by the members of the Orchestra of The Swan is very fine indeed; there’s no hiding place in a score like this and under David Curtis’ leadership they make the best possible case for this arrangement. To my mind, however, Stein’s version is now just a curiosity. Though it fulfilled a useful purpose at the time it’s now of its time and no substitute for the real thing, which can be accessed so easily these days. In fairness, however, I ought to say that others have been more enthusiastic about the Stein arrangement than me. Readers are referred to a review of a rival recording by Colin Clarke. His verdict was: “More than a curio, this Fourth has an appeal and an impact all of its own.”
Rather to my surprise I felt that the arrangement by David Matthews of Nuits d’Été was more successful. The reduction was made in 2005 for an ensemble called Sinfonia VIVA. Matthews re-scores the work for wind quintet, string quintet and harp. On reflection, after listening, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the Matthews arrangement works better than Stein’s because, unlike Stein, he doesn’t actually omit any instruments that Berlioz used. The original scoring calls for double wind and three horns besides strings. So although some of Berlioz’s notes may be missing we hear, in a reduced form, the timbres to which we’re used. It’s worth saying also that Matthews has expanded the role of one instrument. In Berlioz’s original the harp is only involved in the second song but Matthews has written a part for it in three more.
I think that Heather Shipp’s voice is more suited to these songs than to the Mahler. She may not have at her disposal the range of vocal colours that the greatest interpreters have brought to Nuits d’Été and her words are not always ideally clear but I enjoyed her performance - for instance she brings fine feeling to ‘Absence’. I think Matthews’ scoring brings a nice degree of intimacy to much of the music. However, something of the oppressive quality of ‘Sur les lagunes’ is lost and ‘L’Île inconnue’ - the only song in which Berlioz deploys all three horns, incidentally - sounds a bit thin and misses something of the excitement of Berlioz’s writing. As in the Mahler, the instrumentalists play splendidly.
The performances were recorded in concert. The audience is commendably silent though there is applause after both works, which I know bothers some collectors.
In the end I think this is a specialist release. However, if you’re more attracted by hearing ‘Mahler lite’ than I am then this disc is well worth investigating.
Well worth investigating if you’re attracted to hearing ‘Mahler lite’.
Masterwork Index: Mahler 4