Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 4 in G major (1921 chamber version by Erwin Stein)* [53í06"]
Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (1920 chamber version by Arnold Schoenberg)** [16í20"]
*Clare Gormley (soprano)
**Jeffrey Black (baritone
Sidney Soloists/John Harding
*World première recording
Recorded in the Australian Broadcasting Corporationís Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Sidney on *6-7 September and ** 26 June 1998
ABC CLASSICS 461 827-2 [69í26"]

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 passages.

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 horns!

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.

John Quinn

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