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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883-1885) [16:22]
Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902) [18:30]
Kindertotenlieder (1901/1904) [22:12]
Arranged for voice and string quartet by Zakarias Grafilo
Kindra Scharich (mezzo-soprano)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2018, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA

Unlike, say, the Schönberg/Riehn version of Das Lied von der Erde - reduced for a chamber ensemble that included a harmonium! - this project was not motivated by limited resources. It was conceived by Paul Yarbrough, the Alexander Quartet’s violist, as material for a possible collaboration, and executed by Zakarias Grafilo, one of the violinists. As Grafilo indicates in the booklet, he wanted this to be neither a reduction of the familiar orchestral part nor an expansion of the piano accompaniments. His goal, rather, was a chamber-music interaction among the string players and the vocal soloist, working in relative parity.

First of all, can just four instruments, working with the voice, cover all musical bases? Surprisingly, yes, most of the time. Particularly in the early- and middle-period works, Mahler’s sonorities generally take in just three broad musical elements: (1) the melody, with its associated harmonies; (2) a countertheme, with its associated harmonies; (3) the bass line, thematic or functional, which firmly grounds the other activity. The composer generates his broad palette of orchestral colours by varying doublings, or passing a phrase among various instruments, as in Die zwei blauen Augen, the fourth of the Wayfarer Songs. So there was not all that much that Grafilo had to “work around”. Even most of In diesem Wetter!, the last of the Kindertotenlieder, with its buzzing trills and rhythmic accents, works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, in the turbulent Ich hab' ein glühend Messer, from the Wayfarer set, the four strings simply cannot grab everything, and the peaks sound scrawny.

Do the accompaniments work? Again, mostly yes, but not as you might think. Pace Grafilo, I actually find this quartet transcription more intimate than the piano version. Four string players, working in coördination, can actually be more flexible than one pianist at a grand piano, whose imposing resonance somehow induces formality. Many passages in the Rückert songs and the Kindertotenlieder move along rather briskly: in Kindra Scharich’s renderings, the effect is not rushed, but simply conversational and immediate. Liebst du um Schönheit, performed this way, feels intensely personal. While Oft denk'ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen loses its customary bounding quality, it is unusually flowing.

The Alexander Quartet plays attentively and with flair. Here and there, they even manage to suggest the timbres of the absent winds, including the staccatos that begin Ging heut' Morgen. The start of Um Mitternacht, while not suggesting winds, is still suitably sparse, and the players attack the final maggiore incisively, though there was no way to suggest the harp flourishes: the impulsive whoosh is missing. The extended postlude of Ich hab' der Welt abhanden gekommen conveys a sustained introspection. Violin harmonics artfully simulate the glockenspiel strokes in Nun will die Sonn'.

Scharich has a fresh timbre and, as suggested, an easy, spontaneous manner. She projects Die zwei blauen Augen with a nice hush, and the light quartet framework allows her to float through Ich atmet' einen linden Duft. Her feeling for purely musical detail particularly tells in the Kindertotenlieder: the move to major in Nun seh' ich wohl, the brief affirmation in In diesem Wetter. On the debit side, her low range is not firm, while she strains a bit at the top of the staff. The final statement in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen sounds mouthy and “covered”.

The sound quality is excellent, as evident from the fact that I made hardly any notes about it. There is a subtle ambience, if you specifically listen for it. Otherwise, you will hear a vivid sound suggesting a warm, intimate room.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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