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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major (1879) (arranged for chamber orchestra by Peter Stangel) [38:58]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 10 (1910-11) Andante - Adagio (arranged for chamber orchestra by Peter Stangel) [19:35]
Die Taschenphilharmonie (The Pocket Philharmonic) / Peter Stangel
rec. live, November 2013 (Bruckner), November 2014 (Mahler), Allerheiligen Hofkirche, Munich
SOLO MUSICA ETP008 [58:33]

New on Solo Musica, Die Taschenphilharmonie (The Pocket Philharmonic) under the direction of its founder and music director Peter Stangel has released a fascinating live recording of chamber versions of two diverse works: Bruckner’s String Quintet and the Andante - Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Stangel prepared the arrangements of both scores.

Established in 2005, the Munich-based Taschenphilharmonie is dedicated to chamber orchestra performances founded on Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances) which he originated in the 1920s in Vienna. The ensemble performs a range of pared-down orchestral works, employing around 12-20 players. Playing works that can require over a hundered musicians in their original form, the ensemble usually employs only one of each instrument, namely flute, oboe, clarinet, basoon, horn, harp, percussion and a string quintet.

In 1879 Bruckner chose to complete a string quintet, as opposed to the more usual medium of the string quartet. Bruckner wrote his quintet for an additional viola in the manner of Mozart’s superb set of six quintets, rather than an extra cello as Schubert did so successfully with his C major masterpiece. Composer and musicologist Robert Simpson described Bruckner’s Quintet as “a remarkable phenomenon—an almost pure chamber work”. Although Bruckner clearly understood the medium of the string quintet, it comes as no surprise that the F major score has been described as “a symphony in disguise”. Evidently the leader of the Hellmesberger Quartet, Josef Hellmesberger, who had asked Bruckner for a chamber work thought the Scherzo movement too difficult. In response, Bruckner composed an Intermezzo, although Hellmesberger’s ensemble did play the work with the original Scherzo in 1885. Stangel has scored the quintet for twelve players. He employs six strings including bass, with winds including two horns. That, he says, is “to imitate the registers of Bruckner’s orchestral sound—which is, on the bottom line—always inspired by organ registers. So, I added—I hope at least—a third dimension to the piece, a depth of sound colours, always thinking how Bruckner himself possibly would have done.”

Here Die Taschenphilharmonie plays Stangel’s chamber orchestra arrangement of the Quintet with considerable brio and a real sense of enthusiasm. I relish the second movement Scherzo notable for its exuberant playing. The following Adagio is lovingly performed with tender expression. In the resulting sound world it is not difficult to recall examples of Bruckner’s characteristic symphonic style, such as evoking the terraced orchestral dynamics.

One of the most iconic and disquieting works in music history, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, a five-movement work left incomplete at his death, is the composer’s futile, self-delusive struggle to forestall mortality. In a troubled marriage, Mahler—who had endured the death of his daughter Maria and was soon diagnosed as having a potentially deadly heart condition—was a superstitious man. Owing to the curse established by Beethoven, dying before completing a tenth, Mahler was terrified that by writing a tenth symphony he too would be was fated to make it his last. So, to try to sidestep the curse after writing his Eighth Symphony Mahler composed a song cycle, a symphony in structure, that he named Das Lied von der Erde. Then he wrote a Ninth Symphony, actually his tenth, followed by the Tenth. He died before completing it.

Of the attempts made to produce a performing version of the Tenth, the best-known is the one Deryck Cooke prepared in conjunction with Berthold Goldschmidt. Mahler did prior to his death complete the orchestration of the opening first movement Andante - Adagio and of the Scherzo, leaving three further movements in draft form.

The Tenth was designed for large symphony orchestra. Its chamber versions have been prepared notably by Michelle Castelleti and Luis Carvalho. Here Stangel with his pared-down arrangement has decided only to play the first movement Andante - Adagio, because this is Mahler’s own work. The other reconstructed movements have too much conjecture about them, so there is no extrapolation. Stangel’s chamber-orchestra arrangement uses by my estimation sixteen players, a slightly larger number than he normally employs, including pairs of clarinets and horns, and six strings which the arranger states “makes it in my ears very sensitive and intimate”. This symphony of extremes contains some of the loveliest, most uncomplicated music Mahler wrote, with contrasting outbursts of a most discordant, unsettling and complex nature. In Stangel’s version it is surprising how much detail can be heard with surprisingly little reduction of orchestral colour. I love the sense of searching and aching passion the music creates. The dedicated playing is remarkably unified with outstanding intonation, making a quite terrific sound. It feels like hearing the work with fresh ears.

No accompanying booklet: that is a major omission. It results in a total lack of information about the Bruckner and Mahler works, and how the arangements were conceived. All we are given is a short biography of Die Taschenphilharmonie, the names of the players and which instrument they play. Recording live in Munich at Allerheiligen Hofkirche, the engineering team for Solo Musica has provided reasonably close sound, bright with excellent clarity, presence and balance. There is little in the way of extraneous audience noise, and any applause has been removed.

Incidentally, it is intended that in January/February 2018 Peter Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie will release a box set of studio recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies.

Played in live performance with precision and vivacity, this album is a fascinating take on two high quality works, an expanded quintet and a greatly pared-down symphony. This release should appeal particularly to those looking for something different but it should not be ignored by the general music lover.

Michael Cookson


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