December 06, 2018


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $16.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances. Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, violin; Fabio Bidini, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The idea of re-scoring Mahler for chamber forces is neither new nor entirely out of character for the composer’s music. In the 1920s, Mahler’s works were among those performed under the auspices of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, whose concept was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, played by first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them, using arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by members of his circle. The reason this works rather surprisingly well for Mahler is that, for all his demands for gigantic orchestral forces, Mahler very often used the instruments in chamber-music fashion: he needed a great number of them to allow the production of a wide variety of sonic combinations, not (or at least not always) to produce a sheer mass of weighty sound. Thus, the Foghorn Classics  release of string-quartet arrangements of three Mahler song cycles by Zakarias Grafilo, first violinist of the Alexander String Quartet, deserves to be seen (and heard) as a way to elucidate some of the music’s emotional and structural impact – employing forces different from those Mahler chose and therefore able to communicate in their own distinct way. There are, however, some pitfalls in arranging these particular cycles for string quartet, because of Mahler’s acknowledged brilliance in orchestration. In particular, one of the five Rückert-Lieder is scored by Mahler for no strings at all: Um Mitternacht calls only for woodwinds, brass, timpani, harp and piano. So transforming it into a work that is only for strings is, at the very least, a bold undertaking. Furthermore, one of the Kindertotenlieder – the midpoint of the five-song cycle, Wenn dein Mütterlein – uses no violins, making half of a string quartet potentially intrusive into the mood. This song too emphasizes woodwinds, although it does include some string parts. Grafilo’s sensitivity to Mahler actually comes through particularly well in this very piece, where he gives the extended English-horn solo to the viola, whose tone fits the material to fine effect. The reality is that all these quartet adaptations can and perhaps should be regarded as experiments in sonority and emotional communication, and if they are not entirely Mahlerian in the former of those ways, they are highly effective in the latter. Much credit for their expressive impact goes to mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who is equally adept with the lilt of parts of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually sung by a male voice, in accordance with the texts, but aptly fitting a middle-range female voice); the quiet anguish of most of Kindertotenlieder; and the explosive beginning and middle of the latter cycle’s final song, In diesem Wetter. Scharich feels as well as sings the music, and varies her delivery of the texts to mostly excellent effect.  Only the Rückert-Lieder fall a bit short: Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen are both rather too matter-of-fact – particularly surprisingly in the case of the latter song, given Scharich’s sensitivity to that song’s emotions as expressed elsewhere. Most of the singing and emotion here, though, are first-rate, and the Alexander String Quartet is excellent throughout, supporting Scharich when called for, interacting with her when the music so requires, and providing contrast to her vocalizing when that is appropriate. Grafilo’s arrangements almost always lie well on the instruments (no small feat), and while listeners familiar with these song cycles will surely miss some of the many elegant and piquant touches that Mahler brought to them, anyone who loves and appreciates the music should easily hear the respect reflected both in the instrumentation here and in the singing. Certainly this is not the version of these song cycles to own, but certainly it is a version that is very much worth having.

     The violin-and-piano arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances have a much earlier provenance than Grafilo’s quartet arrangement of Mahler songs: the Brahms works were arranged during Brahms’ own lifetime, and very much with his approval, by violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – in 1871 and 1880. Joachim was the great violinistic influence on Brahms, responsible for inspiring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and his Double Concerto, and Joachim’s handling of the Hungarian Dances is a particularly happy melding of form with virtuosic function. This version of the 21 dances is very much a violinist’s dream (and, to some technical extent, nightmare): the piano is relegated to an almost wholly subsidiary role by Joachim (something Brahms, himself a fine pianist, would not likely have done). Yet without the piano providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the dances, the violin would be unable to soar to the heights that Joachim wants – and what heights they are! Listening to Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker’s performance on a new Delos CD is a tremendously involving and exhilarating experience, likely to make anyone familiar with this music wonder why Joachim’s transcription is not heard more often. Part of the reason surely involves the diminution of the piano part – although Fabio Bidini scarcely seems to see himself in a lesser role, throwing himself into the music in full-partnership mode. It may be that this version of the Hungarian Dances simply requires so much abandonment, such intensity of expression in old-fashioned Romany (Gypsy) mode, that only a violinist capable of merging over-the-top musical emoting with impeccable technique can bring the work off with genuine élan. Höpcker is an ideal exponent of the material: she is never dismissive of its folk-music and popular elements (most of the dances were probably Brahms’ arrangements of tunes he had heard rather than ones he himself composed), but neither does she try to make the dances overly serious or, heaven forfend, somber. The Hungarian Dances are almost, in their way, proto-film music, overdone both in their emotional evocation (which is melodramatic rather than dramatic) and in their celebratory vivacity. The best-known dances, such as Nos. 1 and 5, sound fresh and new in the hands of Höpcker and Bidini, while the less-known ones come into their own both as individual pieces and in the overall context of the set of 21. Surely every classical-music lover needs to have these dances in both their orchestral and piano-four-hands versions, and surely they are already a staple of many people’s collections. But this wonderful recording of a version that is just as valid as Brahms’ own comes close to being a must-have for anyone who loves this music: relatively few people will have heard the Hungarian Dances this way before, which means few will realize just how much they have been missing by not knowing what Joachim put into the material and what Höpcker has now extracted from it.

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