September 12, 2013


Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein; Debussy: Prélude à l-après-midi d’un faune. Sónia Grané, soprano; Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Linn Records. $22.99.

Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Maarten Konigsberger, baritone; Ed Spanjaard, piano. Quintone. $19.99.

     Despite the gigantism of Mahler’s orchestras, his scoring always has a certain chamber-music quality to it. He uses the numerous instruments not only or even primarily to create vast swells of sound in the Richard Strauss manner but to allow him to extract subtleties from specific parts of the orchestra and even from individual instruments within sections. As a result, Erwin Stein’s 1920 arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 for 14 instruments and solo soprano has a certain logic and rightness to it (although only 13 instrumental players are listed in Trevor Pinnock’s performance). The arrangement was made for Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances,” which presented distinctive works by contemporary composers including both Mahler and Strauss as well as Ravel, Reger, Bartók and others. Harmonium, piano, and a few strings and winds comprised the society’s ensemble; hence Stein’s approach to the Mahler Fourth. Not surprisingly – indeed, intentionally – the arrangement lays forth the skeleton of the work and effectively displays its inner logic, even while giving short shrift to the big climaxes of the first and third movements, which sound wan. The tradeoff is scarcely perfect but is quite fascinating, especially in Pinnock’s poised and carefully balanced reading, which pays particular attention to details that sometimes get lost in full-orchestra performances – such as the scordatura violin in the second movement. Soprano Sónia Grané is a significant plus, too, singing with very little vibrato and just the sort of wild-eyed, childlike wonder that is appropriate for Das himmlisches leben in the finale. Although much of Mahler’s brilliant orchestral color is indubitably missing here, what takes its place is a kind of stark beauty that is revelatory of the scaffolding on which Mahler erected this last of his symphonies tied to the poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. More than a curiosity although less than the sort of work to which Mahler lovers will want to return frequently, Stein’s sensitively scaled arrangement brings forth elements of Mahler that are always there but that tend to disappear beneath the excellence of his orchestrations. And coupling the symphony with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun makes for a highly intriguing CD: it turns out that Mahler and Debussy share more sensibilities than might at first be evident, for all that Mahler was scarcely an Impressionist (and Debussy hated being called one). The delicacy with which Debussy’s well-known work proceeds turns out to have more in common with the feelings underlying Mahler’s third and fourth movements than might be expected – indeed, more than would likely be noticed were it not for Stein’s small-ensemble arrangement.

     The Wunderhorn symphonies draw on a larger corpus of songs that Mahler set in brilliant orchestral arrangements – and those in turn are part of a still larger collection compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, a collection that ran to 723 songs when published in 1808. Mahler set 24 of the songs in all, his orchestrations so skillful that it is easy to forget that his original settings were in the traditional lied mode for voice and piano. Indeed, the piano versions of the songs sound rather pale to anyone who knows the orchestral ones, even when the piano is as skillfully played as it is by Ed Spanjaard. Also, the voice-and-piano songs place a particularly high burden on the singer, who – as in many other lieder – must use all his powers of communicativeness in a way that is quite different from the one required in the orchestral versions, where the instruments carry much of the emotional freight. Unfortunately, Maarten Konigsberger falls down on this level, resulting in a (+++) CD despite the quality of Konigsberger’s voice and Spanjaard’s accompaniment. The Wunderhorn songs can be sung in any order, but there is little attention paid here to putting them together in a logical sequence – the songs cover many moods, here thrown off more or less at random. And Konigsberger’s emoting tends to be overdone, with his voice rising uncomfortably toward falsetto again and again and his attempts at seriousness simply falling flat, as in Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (the final song here – a decidedly odd placement). In addition to overindulging in some of the songs’ emotions, Konigsberger downplays the effects of other pieces, being, for example, entirely too matter-of-fact in the eerie and deliberately overdone Revelge. It is nice to hear a few of the less frequently recorded songs, such as Aus! Aus! and Selbstgefühl, but most of the songs here have often been recorded to better effect than this. Unlike the Stein arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth, the voice-and-piano versions of the Wunderhorn songs are Mahler’s own, and predate the orchestral versions. But they sound like reductions from the orchestral form of the songs, and while that can give them the same clarity and precision as Stein’s version of the symphony, in the case of this recording the songs, despite their manifold beauties, merely seem pale.

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