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Gustav MAHLER(1860-1911) Das Lied von der Erde (1908, arr. Arnold Sschoenberg/Rainer
Robert Breault (tenor); Richard Zeller (baritone)
Martingale Ensemble/Ken Selden
rec. live, 27 August 2012, First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon. DDD
German texts included MSR CLASSICS MS 1406 [65:00]
It seems that in the last few years there has been something of a vogue for the chamber arrangements firstly of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and subsequently of Das Lied von der Erde. Just over a year ago I reviewed a version of the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement of Das Lied and now here is another recording.
It may be helpful to summarise how this chamber version came into being. Here I am indebted to the notes which Peter Davison wrote for Avie. He goes into a little more detail than we find in the notes for this MSR Classics disc.
Schoenberg decided to make this arrangement for The Society for Private Musical Performance which he and a group of like-minded individuals, including Alban Berg and Anton Webern, had established in Vienna in 1919. Its aim was to mount well-prepared performances of modern works and, in the case of substantial orchestral works, to present the music in arrangements for piano or chamber ensemble, thereby widening access to these scores. The Society existed until 1922 and in those three years or so it put on over one hundred concerts, encompassing 154 works. One of those arranged for the Society was Mahler’s Fourth symphony. The reduced version, made by Erwin Stein, has been recorded a few times (review ~ review).
Schoenberg began work on an arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde in either 1920 (as stated in the MSR notes) or 1921 (Peter Davison). However, he didn’t get very far because the Society folded in 1922. According to Davison only the first song had been done by then. Schoenberg arranged the work for an ensemble consisting of string quintet, wind quintet, piano, harmonium and percussion. There’s also a part for a celesta in ‘Der Abschied’ but according to Davison this was added by Rainer Riehn. Riehn (b. 1941) is a German composer and conductor. He picked up the work begun by Schoenberg as recently as 1983 and completed it.
So, this present performance gives us a much reduced scoring. It also presents us with Mahler’s alternative in which the even numbered songs are sung by a baritone. The score specifically specifies alto or baritone but I’ve never felt the music works quite as well when sung by a male singer. There’s no reason why a man should not sing them - the texts aren’t gender specific - and perhaps my prejudice is based simply on familiarity with the sound of a female voice in these songs but even artists of the calibre of Fischer-Dieskau and Hampson have never totally convinced me: Recordings by both of those great singers are discussed in Tony Duggan’s Mahler survey.
All that said, Richard Zeller makes a good case for the baritone alternative. He has a nice, warm tone and his voice is firm and truly produced. His voice has a good, secure top to it while there’s ample resonance on the lower notes. Furthermore he sings with no little intelligence and with evident empathy for the music and for the texts. He’s especially successful in long stretches of ‘Der Abschied’ where his ability to sing a long, sustained line is a decided advantage. I like his excellent use of dynamics and the expert way he controls his voice. To my ears he can’t quite achieve the ecstatic outpouring that we hear from the best contraltos and mezzos at ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ but his singing gave me a good deal of pleasure.
Would that the same could be said of his tenor colleague. Unfortunately, Robert Breault’s tone sounds narrow, even pinched at times and I didn’t enjoy his voice at all.
What of the instrumental contribution? The first thing to be said is that the playing of the Martingale Ensemble is thoroughly expert. Their membership is drawn from young professional musicians based in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, including some members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. These players don’t seem to put a foot wrong and I was especially taken by the contributions of the flautist and the oboist. The trouble is the thin sound that results from this orchestration. For all the skill of the players much of the first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ sounds either puny or brittle: the sound is too bright and perhaps this accentuates the impression that I received of the tenor’s narrow tone. One or two passages are better: ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ is delicately scored in Mahler’s original so reduced scoring doesn’t sound quite so radical but even so one misses Mahler’s rich orchestral palette.
None of this is to decry Schoenberg’s original intention which was to disseminate the music to a wider audience at a time when broadcasting and recording were in their infancy and when opportunities to hear the full score were not as plentiful as they are nowadays. The problem is that in 2014 we are fully familiar with Mahler’s magnificent and highly original orchestration and so we notice acutely what’s missing. Furthermore, the limitations of the reduced scoring deprive the listener of much of the contrast that Mahler composed into his score - and, needless to say, the big moments sound underpowered.
The annotator, Barbara Heilmair argues that in Das Lied von der Erde ‘the instruments are used in varying combinations of small chamber ensembles within the orchestra to make the colors and shades of counterpoint audible. It is exactly these inherent small-ensemble textures that make the work well suited for an effective chamber arrangement. Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble version emphasises these characteristics with additional clarity, which allows the details and subtleties of Mahler’s writing to become transparent to the listener.’ I’m afraid I disagree completely with this argument. Mahler’s original scoring is perfect; Schoenberg decided to make the arrangement for a specific purpose which was valid at the time but which really has no purpose nowadays. This version is an interesting exercise or curiosity but nothing more than that.
This is now at least the fourth version of the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement in the catalogue and surely that’s more than enough although this present recording is different in offering the tenor/baritone alternative. If you want to explore this arrangement and in the baritone version then this recording has its place but I prefer to hear this luminous score in the way that Mahler intended.
The recorded sound is perfectly acceptable. Whoever designed the booklet perhaps didn’t check the text and translation in the finished product. The text is printed in white type on a dark grey background which makes it very difficult to read. Since the rest of the booklet has the words in black type on white paper this ill-conceived design decision seems simply perverse.