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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D (1909) (arr. Klaus Simon)
Ensemble Mini/Joolz Gale
rec. live, April 2014, Berlin
ARS PRODUKTION ARS38155 SACD [85:26]

The origins for this recording come from Ensemble Mini’s 2010 concert series at the Philharmonie Berlin. For this series conductor Joolz Gale invited Klaus Simon to arrange symphonic work in the spirit of Schoenberg’s arrangements made for the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna (1918-21). The Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble with Trevor Pinnock have recently been recording some of Schoenberg’s arrangements, including Bruckner’s Second Symphony (review) and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (review). There is also a version of this work by Erwin Stein and there are other works around. In your hunt for mini-Mahler the Schoenberg mini-arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde can also be found on more than one recording. It can hardly be a coincidence that there is now another recording of this very same Ninth Symphony arrangement by Klaus Simon on the Gutman record label performed by Camerata RCO, which is made up from members of the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra. I haven’t had a chance to listen to this but we can hope to have a comparison available before too long. It’s spread over 2 CDs which may or may not be evidence of something, but I hear on the grape-vine that it’s rather good.

Joolz Gale has set out his thoughts on this arrangement at some length, and sums up the perhaps unexpected suitability for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: “It’s as though Mahler is trying to return to a bygone world, one more developed than the “Wunderhorn years” of the first four symphonies but that perhaps, this time, embraces his complete life. In that sense, the 9th contains a wider variety of orchestration – often sparse – that allows the transcription for chamber ensemble to remain true to the essential colours and ideas of Mahler’s original composition.”

Arranger Klaus Simon has kept Mahler’s original dynamic markings, and with the dedication and skill of these musicians the surprise is how close this version comes to the atmosphere of the original. Some aspects of the orchestration create distinctive effects. Where Schoenberg would have used a harmonium Simon has gone for accordion, which allows for more dynamic freedom and substitutes associations with chilly churches for those of more bourgeois café life. Scale and perspective are aspects which need a little give and take from the listener, but once you become used to the setting you can adjust your expectations and relax. The first cymbal crash at 5:50 in the first movement sounds rather overblown, but as it appears in the tutti sections further on the balance and suitability of its inclusion becomes clear. Use of the piano is quite restricted, and while the temptation might be to include it all over the place like a sort of continuo this is not the case. Big string sections are represented by single players here, and it is at points where these massed colours emerge that things can become a little edgy. Gale describes how brass and winds are taken a few notches down in dynamic to make things more realistic, and where doublings are often thinned to alternate parts or leave just solo players. The dynamics are as a result contrasting from the very quiet to the seemingly very loud, and while sheer overwhelming bulk of texture may be lacking you don’t feel particularly short-changed in terms of the drama of the whole thing.

The Ländler pace of the second movement is slower than some but works fairly well, the passion of the playing sometimes taking us to the point of vulgarity but all the time making a convincing case for the chamber-music context. Here was a chance to bring out Mahler’s wit and the idea that he might have had more of a sense of fun than we realised, but serious dedication and Teutonic frowns prevail. Remarkable virtuosity in the musicianship on this recording does make you smile however, and more than ever in the difficulties of the Rondo-Burleske third movement. The exposed nature of each part leaves nowhere for anyone to hide, and the sustained quality of this achievement is worth the entry price.

The final Adagio brings us back to the subject of massed string sonorities. Subtle use of the accordion adds support, but the tear-jerking nature of the music is communicated powerfully by the quartet-plus-bass which performs here. What confronts us is the sheer magnificent brilliance of Mahler’s music, shining with eloquence in any context but remarkably effective in this case. The ending is quite magical.

Newcomers to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony would be wise to listen to and absorb some full orchestral versions before engaging with this mini-9th. A personal favourite is that with Sir John Barbirolli on EMI (review), but there are plenty of good ones around. If this is music that you know and love then this will be something of a voyage of rediscovery. The experience of expanding chamber works into orchestral pieces is more common and superficially easier to achieve, but this recording is superb evidence that great music can thrive in ‘austerity’ versions. This performance is by no means a hair-shirt compromise, but by paring back excess weight and revealing more of the bones of the music one has a chance to appreciate new and different aspects of its nature. The SACD sound allows you to inhabit the performance space as if you were almost part of the ensemble, and you can close your eyes and be given the choicest of treats. Mahler’s 9th is a valedictory journey of one sort or another, and as you reach the end of this performance you will feel transported and transformed as much as by many a full orchestral recording.

Dominy Clements