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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (1888, arr. chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon) [55:23]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1872- 1942)
Maiblumen blühten überall (1898, arr. chamber ensemble by Graziella Contratto) [9:30]
Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Mythen Ensemble/Graziella Contratto
rec. 7-11 July 2018, Zurich, Switzerland
Texts included

During these curious, Covid-infected times it has become somewhat commonplace to see full-sized symphony orchestras play symphonies in an appropriately slimmed-down, socially-distanced manner with members of the orchestra spaced far apart - even works as late in the symphonic canon, such as by Brahms and Schumann, have been performed in such pared-back, chamber-sized garb. So now we have been treated to Mahler symphonies, likewise in arrangements for chamber orchestra, by Klaus Simon on Schweizer Fonogramm. So far, he has reworked the First and Fourth Symphonies, both of which have been recorded, although a quick look at the dates (2016 for the Fourth Symphony and 2018 for the First) reveals these are projects which were realised long before the Covid pandemic. This review is of the First Symphony, with the Fourth to follow in due course. In my survey of some 200 plus recordings of Mahler’s First Symphony (see: Mahler First Survey), published in December 2020, I actually referenced Klaus Simon’s version as being one of various arrangements of the work and wondered if there was a recording of it - so since now there is, I now feel duty-bound to review it.

It is often said that Mahler’s symphonies, which usually require huge forces, are really just works for giant chamber ensembles and, to an extent, these this recording give much credence to such an assertion. As the fairly light-hearted notes explain (in German, French and English), this is a ‘pocket-sized’ performances of Mahler’s work referred to by the performers as Titanli, the Swiss-German diminutive of Titan, but listeners expecting to hear revelatory realisations of the music may be left slightly disappointed, as Mahler’s orchestration is, by and large, respected – so the first and second violins are taken by two solo violins, a solo horn take the horns part and so on, with the whole thing ‘fleshed-out’ by a piano plus accordion. There is also percussion, but used very sparingly, as I will explain further on, but in total there are 16 instrumentalists The recording features the Mythen Ensemble, which uses pick-up musicians; they are a dedicated bunch and certainly deliver as persuasive performances as possible under their artistic director, Graziella Contratto who, likewise, directs the symphony idiomatically and with nothing that would raise an eyebrow if she were instead at the helm of a full-sized symphony orchestra. So far, so good then – but the question remains, does it all work?

In my opinion, the answer to that question is, by and large, yes. As mentioned above, the performance is engaging and you do get to hear much of Mahler’s music in familiar colours and instrumentation, even if it is, at best, on only one instrument. As befitting such small forces, Klaus Simon does use the timpani very sparingly; in the First Symphony at the opening of the Huntsman’s Funeral, for example, the drum part taken by the bass keys of the piano, which is surprisingly effective and evocative, lends a spooky, tongue-in-cheek air to the proceedings. Less effective is when piano tremolos are used instead of two timpani players in the dramatic finale at the end of that symphony. It’s at these moments when the ordinary listener may feel short-changed – Mahler may have indeed have 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 dozen or so instrumentalists could never hope to match, however good they may be - and very good the instrumentalists of the Mythen Ensemble certainly are. If the reader is seeking a revelatory realisation of this most youthful of Mahler’s symphonies, then I would encourage them to seek out the astonishing arrangement for solo piano by Chitose Okashiro on Chateau (see: REVIEW ).

This disc does come with an imaginative coupling though, which add an additional 10 minutes of playing time to a work that habitually occupies a single CD to itself. Zemlinsky’s Maiblumen blühten überall was originally written for soprano and string quintet, but is here upgraded to ‘mixed’ ensemble - with mixed results, largely since Lisa Larsson’s tone loses focus at times during the performance.

Ultimately, though, it is for the Mahler that most potential purchasers would consider buying this disc, although it is difficult to work out quite who would want to acquire ‘pocket-sized’ reductions of any Mahler symphonies for home listening, for while the performance is engaging and spirited, too much is lost when compared to the full orchestral version, plus there are so many competing and excellent performances already of the standard version with claims upon the collector’s time, shelf space and pocket. That said, this isn’t to say the exercise is worthless. Around ten years ago, Deutsche Grammophon hit upon the idea of what they called their ‘Yellow Lounge’ initiative, whereby they asked their star soloists to go and perform in nightclubs and bars instead of the more formal settings of the concert hall. A Beethoven Violin Sonata was, for example, performed in a trendy late-night bar in what was formerly a warehouse in London’s Waterloo district and attracted an (enthusiastic) audience, noticeably younger and more casually dressed than would have been the norm across the road at the Royal Festival Hall for the same programme. For me, I think these types of arrangements of Mahler’s symphonies would work superbly in such surroundings, especially if they are performed with as much spirit as on this recording by the Mythen Ensemble. However, for the home-listener, or the more battle-hardened Mahlerian, I am less sure.

Lee Denham

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