Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mini-Mahler - new CDs making the case for pocket-sized arrangements

The arrival of a new recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony reconfigured for 17 musicians is a sign either of our difficult economic times, or of a need to explore familiar repertoire in new ways. Whatever the reason, re-arranging orchestral works for smaller forces seems to be in vogue. In the past month or so, I’ve also encountered a chamber arrangement of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and a piano trio version of Debussy’s La mer. But it’s hardly a new practice: Beethoven was publishing works in more than one instrumental configuration two hundred years ago; Ravel was happy for many of his works to exist in both orchestral and pianistic forms a century later; and Schoenberg and his colleagues made a cottage industry out of chamber reductions in the years after the First World War. In an era before recordings and radio made the symphonic repertoire widely available, these were some of the ways – along with the glut of piano and piano-duet arrangements made for home consumption in the 19th century – that repertoire could gain wider exposure among performers and audiences. And in our own times the practice is counteracted by the penchant for orchestrating piano or chamber works – a particular hobby of my own.

The Prokofiev performance was a highlight of a typically rich and wide-ranging programme given by Eleanor Bron and the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall on 4 December as part of the group’s 50th anniversary season. David Matthews’s reduction of the composer’s orchestral original to an ensemble of wind quintet, string quintet (with double bass), piano and percussion was made in 1991 for the Aquarius ensemble and proved unforced and effective. I had worried beforehand how Prokofiev’s wolf would fare without his three horns, but Matthews cleverly mimicked them with horn, clarinet and bassoon, together with piano adding bite, and the solo wind for the bird, duck and cat sounded as authentic as in the original. As a piece that is educational (in its highlighting of different instruments-as-characters) as much as entertainment, there’s a place for a reduced version to be given in smaller venues such as schools, so it deserves a role in the repertoire of flexible chamber ensembles such as the Nash.

The Debussy, which appears on a new Orchid Classics CD (ORC 100043) that I reviewed for the December2014 issue of The Strad, is a commission from composer Sally Beamish by TrioApaches, the threesome of violinist Matthew Trusler, cellist Thomas Carroll and pianist Ashley Wass, who are keen to expand the repertoire for piano trio beyond the classics and newly composed pieces. Beamish’s transformation is a triumph of transference of instrumental colour and is ingenious in the way it neither diminishes the original nor tries to do more than the new medium can take. It succeeds where Eduard Steuermann’s 1920s arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for the same combination fails, for me, in the way it destroys the uniformity of string sound that is so essential to the original sextet or string-orchestra versions of that masterpiece.

Schoenberg, as it happens, is the inspiration behind the new Mahler 9 recording. In 1918 he founded the Verein für private Musikaufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), a Viennese invitation-only concert organisation set up to provide a safe and sympathetic environment for new music (he had experienced one Skandalkonzert too many). ‘New music’ at that time still included Mahler, as well as the more recent work of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky and others (Zemlinsky actually set up a Prague chapter of the society at the same time). Funds wouldn’t extend to employing a full orchestra so Schoenberg and his acolytes came up with a succession of reduced versions of symphonic and other works to furnish the concerts, from Johann Strauss waltzes as light relief to heavyweights such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (by Schoenberg himself) and Fourth Symphony (Erwin Stein) and Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune (Benno Sachs). Even so, the society folded after just three years for lack of financial support, but its legacy remains nearly a century on in the arrangements.

Ensemble Mini – a group formed by Berlin-based British conductor Joolz Gale from young musicians associated with the Berlin Philharmonic – is not the first to rediscover these arrangements and give them new life: both the London Sinfonietta in its early days and Reinbert de Leeuw’s Dutch-based Schoenberg Ensemble performed or recorded much of this repertoire. But Gale has gone further by expanding this repertoire with brand new reductions, from a mixture of different arrangers (as I write, his own version of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben was due to be premiered in Ensemble Mini’s concert series at the Kammersaal of the Berlin Philharmonie). The new Mahler reductions played by the group – previously Symphonies Nos.1 and 4 (eschewing Stein) and now 9 – have been made by Klaus Simon, director of the Holst Sinfonietta in Freiburg and a pianist, arranger and music editor (his version of Mahler’s Symphony no.5 has also just been premiered by his own ensemble). Confusingly, Ensemble Mini’s new, self-proclaimed ‘world-premiere’ recording of No.9 on German label Ars Produktion (ARS 38 155) follows swiftly on from a rival one of the same arrangement from Gutman Records, which I haven’t been able to hear, from Camerata RCO – an offshoot of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra with which Gale is also associated – but under another conductor.

As well as giving due regard to practicality, Schoenberg’s original musical ethos for his Verein reductions was clarity. Arguably, even at full-orchestral pelt, Mahler’s music is some of the most transparently scored in the repertoire, so one might expect the gains of a chamber arrangement to be slight. Obviously missing is the rich fullness of strings, so essential to the Mahler sound, and with more wind than string players (Simon uses flute/piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns and trumpet) and the quasi-wind sound of harmonium as harmonic filler (Gale uses the reedier accordion instead), the balance is inevitably altered; sparing percussion (two players) and piano add further crispness. The result is something that still manages to sound like authentic Mahler, whose orchestral textures can often take on chamber-like form in any case, yet can also appear more modernist in the sense that its shriller sound-world recalls Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (written just two years earlier than Mahler’s original).

But there’s far more to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony than mere sonic titillation. Indeed, for me it is one of those rare, deeply profound works that I’d normally only choose to hear from a select number of great interpreters and orchestras (Karajan and Abbado, the latter heard live, with the Berlin Philharmonic have become my benchmarks over the years). Simon is surely right to point out, as he does in his booklet interview, that Mahler’s scores are so meticulously annotated that ‘the freedom to interpret with Mahler is much smaller than with Bach’, a composer who by contrast left much detail unstated. But this does not absolve a conductor from making his mark, and a fair few, from Bernstein to Rattle, have been quite free with the text at times. It is also music that – especially here in the Ninth – needs to transport us beyond the notes, and that’s where the seasoned mind comes in. Yet what Gale’s interpretation might lack in the weight of years of experience it gains in inspiring from his Berlin musicians playing of uncommon passion, intensity and perceptiveness – the intimacy draws one in in a way that is often impossible with larger forces, however well balanced. It deserves to be heard both as an arrangement and as a performance.

Here's the ensemble's promotional video for the disc:

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