Following on from the Brahms/Schönberg disc I had a look at earlier this year (see review), the Amsterdam Sinfonietta now brings us ‘the mahler album’, a title which longs for at least one capital letter, a feature of these releases deemed intolerable by the designers.
The Amsterdam Sinfonietta has tackled string quartet transcriptions before, with their Shostakovich programme from a few years ago (see review) as well as the aforementioned Brahms. The Mahler arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet no.11 in F minor Op.95 Quartetto Serioso has popped up a few times before, with a decent recording by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra and Marco Boni on Arts 47514-2. This is placed in the rather vast Concertgebouw acoustic but is full of life and colour, as is the slightly heavier-sounding Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach Chamber Orchestra version with Hartmut Haenchen on Berlin Classics. These examples are both coupled with Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet D.810. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta opens with a good deal more energy and purpose than Haenchen and Boni, though the overall timings are pretty similar to the latter. The Philharmonie acoustic makes the strings sound a little less lonely than with the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta players engage with wider dynamics and a deeper ‘dig’, so their recording comes a little closer to the string quartet original. Massed strings will always iron out the extremes of contrast of a well played quartet performance, and the intimate ‘conversation’ becomes grander and more powerful in substance. This was Mahler’s intention, and his quote which concludes “I unravel the expansion that is dormant in the voices and give the sounds wings” is given in full in the booklet, as well as the reported negative reaction of certain audience members at its first and only performance under Mahler’s baton in 1899. You can prefer the original, but it is always intriguing to explore both versions, and while the Quartetto Serioso doesn’t exactly become a symphony in Mahler’s arrangement it certainly takes on an entirely different character. The impact and drama of the opening Allegro con brio and the third movement Allegro assai vivace ma serioso are both high-octane and potently performed in this recording. The depth of expression elsewhere is as good as one could hope for. Have a listen to the opening of the final movement, the initial Larghetto espressivo section is beautifully shaped. You can sense the attention to detail in the colouring of the rising and falling phrases encapsulated in a mere 50 seconds of music, something which can be found throughout the work.
The Beethoven arrangement is the filling to a sandwich whose outer layers commence with Mahler’s declaration of his love for Alma – at least, according to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg; if anyone should have known about such things it was him. A movement from Mahler’s Symphony No.5, this Adagietto is played as originally composed, for strings and harp only. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s performance is quite gorgeous, the harp balanced a little less close than my comparison, that with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. As you might expect, Bernstein wrings more heart-on-sleeve emotion and passion from his players. The Amsterdam sound is a good deal less rich in vibrato-led colouration, but the timing is almost identical. The Vienna sound is one with massed basses et al so the comparison is perhaps unfair. Even the more chamber-music feel of Candida Thompson’s players creates tremendous atmosphere and richly expressive melodic shaping and some magical contrasts – at that very quiet section about 5 minutes in, for instance.
The Adagio from Mahler’s incomplete Symphony No.10 contrasts with the Adagietto in its emotional world, written at a time in which the composer was suffering the emotional turmoil of the infidelity of his beloved Alma. Mahler pretty much completed the orchestration of the Adagio where the other movements of the symphony were left in sketch form. Thus, with this string orchestra version we know we are missing a whole bunch of woodwinds and brass. The booklet cites the numerous earlier arrangements of Mahler’s work for smaller ensembles, instigated by Schönberg and his students Anton Webern and Erwin Stein. That said, there is no detail on the genesis of this version by Hans Stadlmair, of fame via his Munich Chamber Orchestra on the Tudor label. There are other recordings of this, by the Kiev Camerata on TNC Recordings and a tweaked version via the Kremerata Baltica on ECM, neither of which I know. As an SACD recording this Channel Classics disc does have its own USP.
This arrangement can claim some legitimacy due to the string-led textures of much of the Adagio. However the sheer range of colour and the massive impact of the climaxes are never going to be as spine-curdling as Mahler’s remarkable original. What the Amsterdam Sinfonietta does so effectively is keep that extra in reserve, so that when the moments of highest drama and deepest terror arise they are delivered with the maximum effect possible. Our expectations are also heightened by the tensions and sense of suspended time which precede the real crunch moment, mainly through the way Mahler prepares the ground in his score, but also in the way it is played on this recording. In its way, this version provide us with an intriguing late-romantic string orchestra work, but not one which supplants the killer shocks which can be delivered by the original. That said, there are beautiful effects in this version which come across in ways I hadn’t noticed from the full orchestra – the layering of that penultimate chord in the last few bars for instance, which is expressed so differently without the attack of each note accented by the harp rather than just the strings. Yes, there are gains to be had, though I suspect dividing the violins to the extent required in some passages was the cause for some passages sounding just a little ‘exposed’. With only one double bass there perhaps isn’t quite enough weight in the lower register to carry the entire spectrum of late-romantic orchestral harmonies in the Adagio, though this is more a question of taste than anything.
Altogether this is a fine release, and one to be relished by non-purist Mahler/Beethoven fans and those who revel in the sonorities of an excellent string orchestra. The SACD and stereo recording is very good indeed, though is not one which seeks to sound overly spectacular.