Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (arr. Erwin Stein)
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (arr. Benno Sachs)
Sónia Grané (soprano), Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock (conductor)
Recorded at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol (February 16-18, 2012) – 64’38
Hybrid Super Audio CD Linn Records CKD 438 – Booklet essays in English
Often when we think of Mahler, “big” is what comes to mind. The man who wrote the “Symphony of a Thousand” wrote intricate and colossal works that terrify and enthrall. But the intimacy Mahler creates with over 100 players in a delicate passage, juxtaposed with a loud climax, are part of his singular style. In this new recording, we have a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, in some ways his most accessible and traditional piece. Arranged by composer Erwin Stein for an idealistic concert series first created by Arnold Schoenberg, this chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth features just 13 players (plus the soprano soloist). The results are impressive but ultimately unsatisfying.
Indisputably, there is some breathtaking playing here, particularly by first violinist Eloisa-Fleur Thom. The ensemble’s performance is keenly sensitive yet bold. Cohesion between the players is especially impressive. Furthermore, this is a downright persuasive reading of the piece by esteemed conductor Trevor Pinnock. Pinnock gives the piece plenty of good humor and spirit. His tempi are brisk and jovial, but there is much needed space in the transitions resulting in some poignantly intimate moments, particularly in the third movement. Pinnock has a contagious flair for the folk idiom roots of Mahler’s piece and delivers.
It is hard to avoid the infectiousness of the bouncy first movement, but the effervesce does not result in carelessness. Pinnock’s touch is light but meaningful. The pining of the strings, the tautness of the percussion, and the contrasts between the two make for an invigorating reading. The conversational back and forth between the instruments makes for an enlightening reading. The plucky winds are a wonderful instigator against the suave strings.
For all that is done well here, though, there is enough to leave one unsatisfied. To be fair, that has more to do with the arrangement than Pinnock or his forces. They execute wonderfully. But the pared down Mahler, while fascinating and enjoyable, lacks impact. The surging third movement is the most obvious casualty. While Pinnock’s caring approach to the apex is well paced, it is impossible for the forces to deliver the impact Mahler prescribes. Soprano Sónia Grané sings with innocence and clarity but her vibrato is slightly distracting.
The Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun is a nice addition to the program. It is a plaintive performance that shows off the color achievable in such an intimate ensemble.
Sonically this recording is quite good. If anything, it may be too good as the breaths of the players can be distracting when recorded so closely. The depth of the stage feels a bit too manufactured though as the percussion and keyboards come across slightly hazy compared to the other instruments. I’m sure balance was a consideration as the glockenspiel can be quite overwhelming at the climaxes. In surround sound, the rear channels are hardly noticeable.
This is a fine recording with fine performances. If the Stein arrangement piques your interest, this is indeed a good choice as the performance is outstanding. Mahler fans will want to check it out specifically for Pinnock’s fine reading. Yet, this is only for the initiated. It’s a wonderful curiosity, but the impact of Mahler is best sampled with the enormity and intimacy he achieves in a full compliment of forces.
Matthew Richard Martinez