Mahler – Symphony No 4 (chamber version)

and Song of a Wayfarer (chamber version)

Clare Gormley (soprano)
Jeffrey Black (baritone)
Sydney Soloists conducted by John Harding

ABC Classics 461 827-2
TPT 1: 09: 36

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Here’s something for those interested in music off the beaten track ­ or, more precisely, music well established in the repertoire but here available in rarely encountered guises.

Mahler’s Symphony No 4 is played in Erwin Stein’s 1921 version for chamber ensemble. On the face of it, reducing Mahler’s large-scale orchestral requirements to a mere handful of musicians would seem a recipe for disaster. I’m happy to report that not only does it work but it works very well. In fact, so skilful and persuasive is the reduction that , after only moments into the work to allow the ear to adjust, it becomes clear that Mahler’s musical ideas are so resilient that ­ like so much of the music of Bach ­ they retain their power to hold the attention even if expressed through a medium different to that envisaged by the composer. Certainly, it’s an arrangement that falls pleasingly on the ear; there is nothing here that jars apart from an episode some 16 minutes into the third movement which descends into cheapness.

It is, however, not only the cleverness of the arrangement that impresses but also the marked skill on the part of the thirteen instrumentalists who play in a consistently meaningful way.

A great deal of the success of this recorded performance derives from the uncommon musicality and musicianship that a small ensemble brings to the work, notably in the second movement where Francesco Celata (clarinet), Diana Doherty (oboe) and violins draw from a deep well of expressiveness.

Soprano Clare Gormley, whether by design or consciously, brings to her important contribution to the 4th movement, a tentative, tremulous quality that sounded entirely appropriate for evoking the innocent wonder of a child describing the delights of a gingerbread vision of paradise. Certainly, Ms Gormley’s contribution was altogether in keeping with Mahler’s requirement that the soprano sing in a “childishly joyous way but without even a hint of parody”,

But the chief joy of this recording is Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) with a consistently on-form Jeffrey Black mining the words for every subtle emotional nuance, especially in Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding day). Here, Black’s singing is pregnant with meaning; it comes across as the apotheosis of sadness.
And the darkly dramatic, suicide-threatening mood of Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer (I have a Red Hot Knife) is wonderfully expressed as is the profound melancholy that informs the concluding song.

I particularly admired the skill that none other than Arnold Schoenberg brought to his 1920 arrangement of the work. There is consistently exquisite playing by the accompanying instrumental ensemble.


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