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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 4 in G (1899-1901) (arr. chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon)
Artur SCHNABEL (1882- 1951)
Lieder aus Opp 11 & 14 (c1901) (arr. chamber ensemble by Graziella Contratto)
Rachel Harnisch (soprano)
Mythen Ensemble/Graziella Contratto
rec. 10-14 July 2016, Zurich, Switzerland
Texts included

It is often said that Mahler’s symphonies, which usually require huge forces, are really just works for giant chamber ensembles and this recording, together with its companion release of the First Symphony I reviewed a few weeks ago attempts to prove just that. Inspired by Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1918 when, due to the financial constraints at the time, performances of ‘rare repertoire’ using full-sized symphony orchestras were limited, specially arranged, cheaper chamber renditions in private settings were promoted instead, Klaus Simon arranged Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in 2007 for just such forces of solo woodwind and horn, accordion, piano, 2 percussionists, 2 violins, plus solo viola, cello and bass. Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that this is in fact a re-release from 2017, but the producer Frédéric Angleraux was not happy with the results and has re-mastered his earlier efforts for this release. I have not heard the original so cannot comment upon the improvement, but this is as fine sounding disc of chamber music as anyone has a right to hear.

The burning question is, of course, does any performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for 13 instrumentalists, plus soloist, do the music justice? The answer, as with the companion release of the First Symphony, is yes – and no. In the earlier work, there were occasions when the music actually benefitted from Klaus Simon’s clever reductions, in particular the opening of the Huntsman’s Funeral, for example, where the opening timpani was replaced by the bass keys of the piano, which lent a kind of spooky and tongue-in-cheek air to the proceedings that I felt was quite effective. However, elsewhere it was idle to pretend that a mere dozen or so instrumentalists could do justice to a full-sized symphony orchestra in full cry. There are similar results here in the Fourth Symphony, the third movement Adagio neatly encapsulating all the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. Right at the beginning of this movement, the music is more effective than you may think when each instrumental line is taken by a solo violin, viola, cello and double bass. However, when the solo oboe enters in bar 25, the balance is all wrong – in the full orchestral version, the strings provide a halo of sound around the oboe that is quite magical and impossible to recreate with chamber forces, which instead has the oboe dominating the musical texture. Likewise, the feeling of exultation and wonder, the music blinding in its thrilling power, is muted when the gates of Heaven are flung open at the end of this movement by a mere dozen or so instrumentalists, rather than a normal sized orchestra in full cry. It’s at these moments when the ordinary listener may feel short-changed – Mahler may have indeed written music for a giant chamber ensemble, but when that he unleashes the full might of such forces the effect is overwhelming in a way that a “pocket-sized reduction” could ever hope to match, however good they may be, and, without a doubt, the instrumentalists of the Mythen Ensemble are certainly very good. They are ably led by their conductor Graziella Contratto with Rachel Harnisch a fine soloist in the last movement. It is just that, in my opinion, they can never hope to match the brilliance of a fine performance of this work given by an ensemble, the size of which Mahler original envisaged for this work.

As with the release of the First Symphony, there is once more an imaginative coupling which adds an additional ten minutes of playing time to works which habitually occupy a single CD by themselves. Artur Schnabel’s Lieder opus 11 & 14 were written for piano and the soprano Therese Behr, who eventually became his wife and, somewhat ironically (in light of the reduction of the symphony), have been revised and expanded to full chamber ensemble by the conductor Graziella Contratto.

The singing of Rachel Harnisch, as in the coupled Fourth Symphony, brings freshness and even tone to the five songs of Schnabel, which are pleasant, typical of their time (they were written around 1900), if hardly memorable, but it’s good to be reminded that Schnabel was more than just a great pianist. It was an inspired idea to couple them with the symphony on this release, not least since Schnabel was laid to rest in a cemetery at the foot of the Mythen mountains which in turn, provides the name and home of the ensemble on this disc.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure if potential purchasers would acquire this disc just for 10 minutes of music by Artur Schnabel, however interesting his songs may have been. Whether it is wise to spend money on a ‘pocket-sized’ reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, even one as good as presented here, when there are some many other recordings of the full orchestral version competing for the time, shelf-space, pocket and ears of collectors, I am less sure, even though there is no doubting that if it is going to be performed this way, you could hardly wish for it to be done better.

Lee Denham

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