Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G (arr. Klaus Simon) [50.27]
Heather Jamieson (soprano)
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Chamber Ensemble/Peter Manning
rec. Glasgow Concert Hall, 2014

In the years following Mahler’s death, in the long period of dearth before the Mahler revival of the 1960s and during which his music was rarely performed, attempts were made to bring his music to the attention of audiences by means of reductions of his scores for smaller forces. Of these the most significant were Schoenberg’s chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde and Britten’s arrangement of What the flowers tell me from the Third Symphony. Neither of these seem in the event to have made much impact at the time. It is extremely hard to understand why anybody in these days when recordings of any Mahler symphony are not precisely thin on the ground should feel the need to make an arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth for chamber ensemble, let alone record it. The Fourth is in any event the most lightly scored of Mahler’s symphonies. I almost at once doubted that any further dilution of the instrumentation would bring much in the way of elucidation of the already relatively small-scale textures.

Unfortunately this performance does little to dissipate such suspicions. The passages of the symphony which are already chamber-like in texture are not further clarified here, and the occasional climaxes which really need a larger orchestra are not so much “internalised” — as John Wallace suggests in his booklet notes — as simply undernourished. The third movement comes off worst, with an almost total lack of warmth in the romantic string writing. The climax, which has been likened in its orchestral form to the opening of the gates of heaven, simply sounds trivial with its thundering descending piano writing and decidedly under-nourished swirling violin figurations. In the second movement the solo violin part — tuned a semi-tone sharp — doesn’t stand out from the rest of the players as it does in the orchestral version, simply sounding slightly queasy. The use of a harmonium to thicken the string textures in the first movement does little except add an alien sound to writing that cries out for massed violins. The opening with its jingles is heard over repeated staccato piano chords that sound just too formulaic for comfort.

None of this is the fault of the players, who are real experts on their instruments – most notably Eneko Carroll, who veers unerringly from horn passages in the upper register to growling in the depths as if it were the easiest thing in the world. He is not to blame for the fact that his part consistently dominates the textures in a manner than sounds quite un-Mahlerian; he is reinforced with a second horn in the third movement only. The performance under Peter Manning is brisk in a style that serves to minimise the problems of balance with solo strings — all of whom are well in the picture — but the players experience real difficulty in coping with the extended cantilena of the slow third movement. Heather Jamieson, set forward in the sound balance, has a lovely voice but it does not sound child-like in the way that Mahler clearly intended. She fails to provide a real pianissimo on phrases like “Sankt Marta die Köchin muss sein” in the manner that can work so effectively for larger-voiced singers.

The reason for the purchase of this release must therefore be as a sample of the ensemble of talented students featured. John Wallace suggests as much in his comment that the intention was to “capture the particular frisson of this group before many graduated”. As such it works fine, although one wishes rather that they had been given something more substantial to do.

The recorded sound is excellent, and the booklet provides the full text and translation for the final movement although no notes on the music itself or its arrangement.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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