In the days before commercial recordings piano
or organ transcriptions of orchestral or operatic music were often
the vehicle by which many people got to know works that we nowadays
take for granted. The arrangements presented here were made primarily
for another purpose, however.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) founded the Society
for Private Musical Performances in Vienna in 1918 because he
was fed up of having to endure hostile and fractious behaviour
by some concertgoers when confronted with a new piece of music.
The frequent disruptive behaviour by a section of the Viennese
public compromised the appreciation of these new works by Schoenberg
and like-minded people. So he founded the Society with the aim
of presenting new music to a small but congenial and understanding
audience. It was impossible to present these performances with
a full orchestra (if required) so where necessary the music was
arranged either for piano(s) or for a small ensemble. All this
information, and much more, is contained in the very useful notes
accompanying this release.
Mahlerís music featured quite prominently in
the Societyís programmes. Indeed, a two-piano version of his Seventh
Symphony was included in the very first concert. As well as the
song cycle arrangement included here Schoenberg made for the Society
an arrangement for small ensemble of Das Lied von der Erde
(which has been recorded both by Herreweghe for Harmonia Mundi
and by Mark Wigglesworth on RCA). The arrangement of the Fourth
Symphony was made by Erwin Stein (1885-1958) and he conducted
its first performance in 1921. When he left Austria for England
in 1938 the score and parts were lost and it was his daughter,
Marion Thorpe, who reconstructed the arrangement at the behest
of the Britten Estate, working from her fatherís annotated copy
of the full score. The reconstruction was heard for the first
time in 1993.
The scoring of the Stein version is indeed slender
compared to Mahlerís full orchestral dress. Just 11 players are
used. The instruments required are: two violins; one each of viola,
cello and double bass; flute (doubling piccolo); oboe (cor anglais);
clarinet (bass clarinet); piano/harmonium; and two percussionists.
Itís not clear whether Steinís scoring was voluntary or whether
it was dictated by the availability of players. I must say that
the omission of a French horn strikes me as particularly regrettable.
That instrument was always crucial to Mahlerís scoring and never
more so than in the Fourth Symphony where it has countless important
I must admit to some ambivalence about this recording.
I find the reduced scoring by turns enlightening and frustrating.
Carl Rosman makes a good case for the chamber version in his notes,
arguing that this version imparts a unique transparency to Mahlerís
lines and allowing many details to come through with far greater
clarity than is possible in the full scoring. To some extent Iíd
agree. However, surely the difference between now and 1920 is
that we know Mahlerís score so well. Iíll admit thereís a certain
piquant fascination in spotting where familiar lines have been
reallocated (and, on first hearing, in trying to guess which of
the instruments will get a particular solo, normally played by
an absent instrument.) However, the reduced scoring robs us of
Mahlerís complicated but very finely calculated orchestral palette.
Consequently, Iím bound to say that I found more instances of
frustration than of enlightenment when listening.
For much of the time the re-scoring is surprisingly
effective, no doubt because this symphony has the lightest orchestration
of all the nine. However, to make perhaps the most obvious point
of all, itís the climaxes that really suffer. Take the climax
of the first movement, for instance (track 1 from 9í12")
where the knifing trumpet part anticipates the first movement
of the Fifth Symphony. Here that critical motif is allocated variously
to clarinet, oboe and flute and Iím afraid I find it lacks conviction
in this guise. Worst of all is the great moment of fulfilment
at the climax of the third movement (track 3, 16í01"). Here,
above all, I felt short-changed. The sun just doesnít burst through
the skies here Ė how one misses the pounding timpani and pealing
There are passages of real felicity, however.
One such is the introduction to the final stanza of the poem in
the finale where Stein allots the line normally heard on muted
violins to solo flute to lovely effect (track 4, 5í33").
The perky, rustic scherzo also works quite well in this version,
though I miss the earthiness of the horns.
The finale features distinguished singing by
Clare Gormley, a singer new to me. She has a lovely tone and sings
with purity and a sophisticated innocence Ė Iíd like to hear her
sing the part with full orchestra. In fact, I found that this
movement works best in this performance, perhaps because the ear
is drawn to the singer rather than to the accompaniment.
This is true also of the song cycle (or perhaps
oneís ear is accustomed to hearing the songs with piano accompaniment?).
Here the scoring is even lighter, requiring just 8 players. John
Harding plays the sole violin part as well as directing the performance.
He is joined by one each of viola, cello and double bass. The
ensemble is completed by flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet,
piano and one percussionist. Jeffrey Black is an excellent soloist.
He has a heady, easy baritone and the wide tessitura of the cycle
gives him no problems. His diction is excellent (as is Clare Gormleyís).
These are charming performances of the songs, light and airy and
a delight to hear.
No praise can be too high for the standard of
the instrumental playing on this CD. The challenge of playing
a symphonic score in such reduced numbers is a daunting one but
the Sydney Soloists are superb. In these exposed scores there
are no hiding places but none is needed. The playerís technical
accomplishment and musical sensitivity are tremendous and they
serve Mahler and his arrangers exceptionally well. John Hardingís
direction of both pieces is sure footed. His are straightforward,
unmannered interpretations with no unwelcome or attention-seeking
quirks. In summary they are completely idiomatic. The performances
are presented in excellent, natural sound.
Although it undoubtedly served an important purpose
at the time I do have reservations about the arrangement of the
symphony and its relevance to todayís audiences. However, I have
learnt a lot from hearing it and Iím sure I shall return to it
in the future. Itís an enterprising and stimulating release but
one for the specialist listener only, I suspect.