Sunday, 27 September 2009

Mahler 4th Stein not a miniature

Why a chamber transcription of Mahler's Fourth Symphony when the full thing is so good? Because transcriptions are made as study materials, to explore the basic structure of the work to better appreciate how it functions. That was the aim of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (The Society for Private Musical Performance). It was a closed, private circle of musicians and composers (including Schoenberg) who met to hear and study music they cared about. This wasn't a public concert series, but a kind of big scale Liederabend where musicians could hear music thoughtfully performed.

Stein's transcription isn't a substitute for the full symphony, nor Mahler "lite"or even meant to be "beautiful". It's a way of understanding compositional processes in performance. Kenneth Slowik's version uses period instruments from the Smithsonian Museum, which creates a nice ambience, which fills out the sparsness of the orchestration. It's also useful because Slowik used Willem Mengelberg's handwritten notes on his performance score. Since Mengelberg knew and worked with Mahler on the symphony, this is valuable first-hand source material. Elegant playing, though the singing isn't great. Read more about it here.

The version by Thomas Christian Ensemble with Christine Oelze as soloist, however, is outstanding, and lifts the Stein transcription from being a study reference to a work of artistic merit for its own sake. The Ensemble's commitment shines through, and Oelze's singing is so wonderful that her presence alone makes this one of the "must have" recordings, up there with the greats.

The simplicity of the orchestration makes each group of sounds distinct: winds setting out a theme, while the strings curve seductively around them. The Schnellkappe is particularly attractive, the bells not too dominant – “their time will come” - and the overall effect is of a delicately paced dance. This is no clumsy Ländler, but more like a minuet danced by putti, a reference to the vision of Heaven to come. Overall, the transcription brings out the airy, dance-like character of the symphony, and this performance, more than any of the others, emphasizes its almost baroque quality. Tiny details become clear in closeup: the flattened toot toot of the harmonium introduces humour with the sparest of notes, the solo flute dances around the piano part, imitating its steady tread. In the second movement, a solo violin represents Freund Hein, the fiddler who leads the dance of death.

The pianos play an essential part in the transcription for they hold together the whole structure of the piece. They don’t constitute a “part”, but come in at intervals when depth is needed. Here they are performed with real warmth of tone, firm enough to keep the piece on course, yet sensitive to the other parts. It is especially effective in the Ruhevoll, which Mahler himself told Bruno Walter reminded him of the statues of medieval saints, their hands solemnly folded across their chests, but whose calm faith in a better afterlife lights their faces with gentle smiles. The piano part adds resonant gravitas to the movement, which, together with the solo violin creates a lovely sense of ebb and flow. Its contemplative tone makes the dramatic “sunrise” coda all the more glorious and uplifting.

In the last movement the piece reaches its apotheosis. It was the first part to be written, all else leads up to it, and any performance stands or falls on it. This is the only recording of the transcription that uses a really top-notch soloist, and it makes all the difference, particularly as the singer has to adjust to the reduced orchestral forces.

Oelze is blessed with unusual purity of tone, so the bell-like clarity of her voice matches the piece perfectly in purely aesthetic terms. Moreover, she is far more experienced than the other soloists: for her, emotional warmth and sensitivity flow naturally. She seems to sing with the smile of the saints, beatified: Elftausend Jungfrauen zu tanzen sich trauen is so beautifully phrased it sent goosebumps up my spine, and I’ve heard a few good versions in my time. Although I personally have a weakness for singers with fragile voices, a voice as genuinely lovely as this is much more in keeping with Mahler’s intention, that that divine bliss conquers all earthly sorrow. It was a powerful message for him, and should be sung with convincing Seligkeit (heavenly bliss). Oelze’s background in early music and the baroque adds to her appreciation of Mahler’s imagery : Keine Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die unsrer verglichen kann warden (no music on earth can be compared to ours).

There are two other versions I know, one by the Linos Ensemble which was the first recording but not otherwise very special and one by The Manchester Camerata with a very young Kate Royal. That was highly publicized when it came out, perhaps because it was British, however that pertains and because not many knew the other recordings. Much as I tried to hear merit in it, it offers little, and I can't recommend it. The Thomas Christian Ensemble with Oelze came out soon after with nil publicity (issued by MDG - small German audiophile recording label) but soon became the version that makes the transcription a fulfilling musical experience on its own terms.

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