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Visions of Childhood
April Fredrick (soprano)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. July 2020, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Texts and English translations included
NIMBUS NI6408 [79:30]

In 2020, as the Covid pandemic wiped out most live music-making, an increasing number of orchestras began to stream concerts as a way of both keeping their ensembles active and raising some much-needed revenue. One of the early exponents of streaming was the English Symphony Orchestra who, with their conductor Kenneth Woods, recorded a series of concerts in the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth. I reviewed some of these for Seen and Heard International. The first concert, streamed in August, featured the orchestra’s Affiliate Artist, soprano April Fredrick, singing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder (review). Ms Fredrick was back for the second concert, streamed in October (review), which included all the other works on this CD. Nimbus has now released the audio of those two concerts.

In order to maintain the requirements of social distancing, these streamed concerts were given with no audience present. More relevantly as regards this CD, small orchestral forces were used. The arrangement of Vier letzte Lieder by the Australian composer James Ledger (b 1966) reduced Strauss’s scoring to 13 players, comprising single woodwind (including some doubling), 2 horns, piano, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. The forces required for the other pieces were fairly similar: string quartet, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, harmonium and (for the Mahler items only) a percussionist. All the pieces except the Strauss songs were presented in a programme entitled, as is this CD, Visions of Childhood and the CD running order is the same as that of the concert. I thought at the time that the structure of the programme was well thought-out and worked well.

I’ll deal first with the Visions of Childhood programme since that’s a very carefully conceived sequence. It begins with just the first few bars of the opening movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – it ends with the rising three-note phrase with which the violins introduce the movement’s main theme. Structurally, this is an appropriate beginning because the sequence ends with the finale of that symphony. I suppose this tiny fragment might be viewed as the musical equivalent of “Once upon a time”. However, I’m not quite sure how well it works when we only hear the programme as an audio recording shorn of the visual element. Kenneth Woods’ arrangement of Siegfried Idyll follows without a pause. Some of Wagner’s original instrumentation – trumpet, horns, second clarinet and bassoon – has been replaced by piano and harmonium. What has been retained – or maybe I should say rediscovered – is the sense of intimacy. Nowadays, we are accustomed to hearing Wagner’s piece played by a chamber-sized orchestra; it’s easy to forget that the first performance, outside Cosima’s bedroom, was given by a mere 13 instruments. Woods’ performance recaptures the intimacy and it seemed to me that, despite the changes in scoring, the sound world is different but similar, if I may put it that way. The piece is beautifully played and the music is so paced as to avoid any trace of sentimentality. I liked the unbridled sense of joy at the climax of the piece, after which the music winds down over the last few minutes to a contented, tranquil close.

Humperdinck’s innocent yet sophisticated music is delightfully done. April Fredrick sings the part of the Sandman and then, for the Evening Prayer, she becomes both Hansel and Gretel. The results are enchanting. I understand that Kenneth Woods has made a number of arrangements for inclusion in concert programmes alongside the chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth. This sequence offers two such arrangements, both involving songs by Schubert. The Lied and Variations on Die Forelle takes the song itself and marries it with some of the variations which Schubert composed for his celebrated ‘Trout’ Quintet. In essence, one variation, suitably rescored, is heard in between each of the song’s three stanzas. Woods outlines what he’s done in the booklet. I think the resulting concert piece is excellent and imaginative. I loved, for example, the passage between verses one and two of the song. Woods takes one of Schubert’s variations in which the piano plays the tune, decorating it frequently with trills. In Woods’ reimagining of the music a flute (or perhaps it’s a piccolo) contributes more trills in the background, mimicking the piano’s decorations; the effect is charming. April Fredrick sings the song delightfully. Kenneth Woods’ synthesis of the song and the ‘Trout’ Quintet is absolutely faithful to the spirit of Schubert.

He’s no less successful with his take on Der Tod und das Mädchen. In this case, he has orchestrated the entire slow movement – except the last bar – of the slow movement of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet, D810. Compared to the quartet, there’s a wider range of instrumental colouring in Woods’ arrangement but, once again, I thin the spirit of Schubert’s original is completely respected. Sensibly, Woods makes no attempt to “improve” on the opening, which, as in the original version, is voiced just by a string quartet. Here, the ESO players imbue the music with a really ghostly pallor. Woods’ masterstroke, I think, comes when he integrates the song after the music of the quartet movement. The grave piano introduction, in which Schubert used the music to which Death’s words will be sung, is transferred by Woods to the harmonium and the instrument’s dark, reedy timbre fits the music like a glove.

In between the two Schubert arrangements April Fredrick sings Mahler’s ‘Das irdische Leben’. I think that Woods’ arrangement for small instrumental forces is very idiomatic – he says he has stuck as closely as possible to Mahler’s original. The scoring has a brittle character to it which I think is entirely suitable. From there it’s logical to move, via Schubert, from Mahler’s vision of the Earthly Life to his take on the Heavenly Life. We hear Das himmlische Leben, the last movement of the Fourth Symphony, in Erwin Stein’s chamber scoring, which I’ve heard several times before. Stein leaves one conscious that some orchestral colourings have been lost but, overall, I think his reduced scoring works very well. I admired the agility of the ESO woodwind and string players at several points. April Fredrick characterises the song very nicely and her singing is gently radiant in the closing section (from ‘Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden’); in these last pages I appreciated also the tender orchestral playing.

At this point, if you’re listening straight through the disc, I’d recommend making a short pause because the Visions of Childhood programme, which is such a satisfying and carefully constructed sequence, ends there.

It’s possible that listeners approaching this disc will be wary of hearing Vier letzte Lieder in a version that reduces the composer’s opulent, autumnal scoring to just 13 instruments. I must say that I was thoughtful before I heard the streamed concert but I noted that James Ledger made his arrangement in 2005 for Dame Felicity Lott, who premiered it that year at London’s Wigmore Hall with the Nash Ensemble conducted by Bernard Haitink. The involvement of two such noted Strauss exponents in the project gave me some confidence, and it turned out that the confidence was not misplaced. I think anyone who is familiar with Strauss’s glorious scoring will find themselves regretting the absence of some elements of the original orchestration – as I did at times – but I feel that Ledger has done a very tasteful and successful job.

April Fredrick sings the songs very persuasively. In ‘Frühling’ she delivers the florid arabesques cleanly, her silvery voice soaring freely. The instrumental scoring may lack Straussian opulence but the details are just as telling and Ledger’s version has the benefit of great clarity. Ms Fredrick is very poised in ‘September’ and the way she delivers the close (‘langsam tut er die müdgewordnen Augen zu’) is gorgeous. James Topp does full justice to the golden solo horn line. ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ opens with exquisitely shaded instrumental playing from which the soloist takes her cue. She sings the song with lovely tone and evident feeling. Before the last stanza Zoë Beyers spins the celebrated solo violin line quite beautifully, after which ‘Und die Seele unbewacht’ soars ecstatically. I think that it’s perhaps in ‘Im Abendrot’ that I most miss Strauss’s original scoring. That’s not to say that Ledger’s version doesn’t work; it does, but there’s something about hearing those rich, autumnal chords played softly by a large group of instruments which a small ensemble can’t replicate, no matter how skilful the reduced orchestration is. That said, on its own terms and in the context of this chamber version, Ledger’s work is very successful, I think. April Fredrick and the ESO players give a dedicated and finely focused performance. This is the first recording of James Ledger’s arrangement and I feel sure he’ll be delighted by this fine performance.

This excellent disc is both rewarding and thought-provoking. Not only is the music-making highly accomplished but, in addition, the arrangements made me think afresh about music I know well. I enjoyed the performances when I first saw and heard them during the online streaming; I’m delighted that the audio has now been issued on disc for us to experience repeatedly. I confess that in the past I’ve been somewhat wary of the chamber versions of large-scale works such as Erwin Stein’s reduction of Mahler’s Fourth. I could well understand why they were made in the first place, to disseminate the music, but nowadays, when performances of the full scores are so readily available, I questioned the relevance of performing or recording them in reduced-forces scoring. Well, the cultural deprivation occasioned by Covid restrictions - at least as regards large-scale live performances – obliges me to reconsider. Arguably, the skilful arrangements by the likes of Stein and Ledger now have a new relevance. Kenneth Woods’ Schubert arrangements are in a different category because these don’t contract the original scoring, rather they expand it. As I’ve indicated, I think these Schubert settings are highly successful.

The standard of performance throughout this imaginative programme is consistently excellent. The musicians have been expertly recorded by engineer Phil Rowlands, who also produced the disc. Kenneth Woods’ notes are an authoritative and persuasive guide to the music.

John Quinn

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911), arr. Erwin Stein Symphony No 4 (opening) [0:15]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883), arr. Kenneth Woods Siegfried Idyll WWV103 [18:30]
Engelbert HUMERDINCK (1854-1921) arr. Woods ‘Der Kleine Sandmann’ / ‘Abendsegen’ (Hänsel und Gretel) [4:57]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828), arr, Woods Die Forelle, Lied and Variations for soprano and orchestra [5:45]
Gustav MAHLER, arr. Woods ‘Das irdische Leben’ (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) [3:10]
Franz SCHUBERT, arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen, Variations and Lied for chamber ensemble and soprano [15:33]
Gustav MAHLER, arr. Stein Das himmlische Leben (Symphony No 4) [9:11]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949), arr. James Ledger Vier letzte Lieder TrV296 [22:19]

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