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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 [arranged for 17 players, 2014] [67.16]
Natalia Ensemble
rec. Auditorio de Zaragoza, Sala Mozart, Spain, April 2016
COBRA 0055 [67.16]

Symphony No. 4 in G [arranged Erwin Stein, 1921] [55.44]
Christiane Karg (soprano)
Salzburg Festival All-Stars Ensemble
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Schatz-Walzer, Op.418 [arr. Anton Webern, 1921] [8.22]
Kaiser-Walzer, Op.437 [arr. Arnold Schoenberg, 1925] [12.20]
Salzburg Festival All-Stars Ensemble
rec. live Salzburg Festival Mozarteum, 27 June 2011
ORFEO C925161B [76.31]

Following the saturation of recordings of Mahler symphonies in the current catalogues, there seems now to be a growing trend to commit to disc versions of the works arranged for smaller chamber forces, and these two discs follow on from three other such recordings which have crossed my path in the last couple of years: No 2 for piano duet, No 8 for voices and organ, and another version of No 4 in a different arrangement. Although in the 1920s, when Mahler’s symphonies were rarely heard, such chamber arrangements as that by Erwin Stein of No 4 given here had a considerable value in making it possible for audiences to appreciate the music, and there have been a number of critics who have claimed that such reductions serve the listener by bringing out subtleties in the scores which are lost in large-scale performances, I remain unconvinced that such arrangements serve any real purpose beyond satisfying the undoubted commercial appeal and appetite for Mahler. The composer’s phenomenal command of orchestral technique is all too frequently diluted in such small-scale versions, and the changes in perspective which reveal the ‘subtleties’ that some listeners claim to detect can equally easily be satisfied in the hands of interpreters of the scores in their original form who are alive to these nuances. Those thirsting for live performances will enjoy encountering the symphonies occasionally in such a form; but, when we have so many great renditions already on disc, the enshrinement of such chamber versions on record seems decidedly supernumerary.

If one is drawing comparisons, however, it should be observed that Erwin Stein’s version of the Fourth is decidedly preferable to that by Klaus Simon which I reviewed a couple of years ago when it was released on the Nimbus label in a performance by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Chamber Ensemble conducted by Peter Manning. Mind you, the total absence of brass instruments (Klaus Simon used horns) means that more weight is thrown onto the piano and harmonium. However both the score and parts of Stein’s arrangement were lost, and the version we hear on this disc was reconstructed as recently as 1993 “from Mahler’s original score” which would seem to imply that this might legitimately be regarded as a completely new version rather than what we would normally expect from a “reconstruction”. The instrumentation indeed seems to have been determined by the number of players shown in a photograph of the period, when the second player on the harmonium was identified as Karl Popper – presumably the same person who ended his life as a professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics when I was a student there. In a long and informative booklet note Hannes Eichmann makes the observation that “the most valuable insight to be gained from the arrangement was the awareness that the compositional qualities inherent in the structure of Mahler’s music are independent of its effect as a body of sound.” Well, up to a point; but such insights are equally to be found from listening to the score in the full orchestral form that Mahler gave us with the assistance of a score. Passages such as the climax of the slow movement (track 5, 17.05) sound simply strident and noisy, far removed from the sublime effect which Mahler so clearly sought. Christiane Karg is charming in the final movement (track 6), producing some lovely floated high pianissimi, but she is placed far too close to the microphone. Nor does the booklet provide us with either texts or translations for what she is singing.

The disc is rounded out with two arrangements of Strauss waltzes by no less significant figures than Arnold Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern, which clearly served to ‘sugar the pill’ for members of the original audience, but have little more than historical interest today. One must however admire throughout the ensemble playing (featuring such major artists as Renaud Capuçon on violin) which is apparently achieved without the direction of a conductor. The audience applauds vociferously.

The Natalia Ensemble similarly give us Mahler’s Fifth without the benefit of conductor, and indeed the players themselves take responsibility for the arrangement although clearly it cannot have been an exclusively co-operative effort. It would be unthinkable to give any performance of this score without the presence of a solo trumpet at the beginning; and here indeed the seventeen players do include two brass players. In fact the very opening is remarkably effective, but almost immediately (track 1, 0.57) the plonking of a piano brings the listener up short. In his booklet note (five pages) Pablo Sánchez Quinteiro mounts a spirited defence of the practice of making chamber arrangements of Mahler symphonies (he refers rather quaintly to the Fourth as being “transcripted by Erwin Stein”) without convincing me of the validity of the process. To state that “there is no loss” in the procedure is surely simply untrue, and his description of it as “philological” seems to be stretching that word well beyond its legitimate limits. The fact that the playing, once again, is superb, serves to increase one’s admiration for the players without endorsing the nature of the enterprise itself. The recording, less closely miked than the Orfeo, is less shrill in climaxes but nevertheless one misses the sense of overwhelming power that is an essential part of Mahler’s conception. The one movement that loses little from the process of arrangement is the Adagietto (track 4) but that is surely somewhat of a special case, scored as it is in the original for strings and harp alone. The recording itself was “crowdfunded” and a list of the 153 donors (in extraordinarily small type) is included in the booklet; the production itself is excellently recorded and presented; the booklet notes are given in both English and Spanish.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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