Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Gale
Ars Produktion 381 55
Classical - Chamber
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (arr.Klaus Simon)
Review by Mark Werlin - November 6, 2015
Q: Not another recording of the Mahler 9th?
A: Not JUST another recording of the Mahler 9th.
The SACD catalog already contains at least 20 different discs of Gustav Mahler's last completed symphony, ranging from LP-era Barbirolli and Bernstein to state-of-the-art MCH recordings. Dozens more are available on RBCD, and the symphony is programmed frequently by major orchestras of the world. What could anyone possibly have new to say about this well-explored, marathon-length work?
British conductor Joolz Gale and arranger Klaus Simon undertook the daunting task of realizing the Ninth Symphony for small ensemble. They were inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangement of Mahler’s "Songs of a Wayfarer", which was presented ca. 1920 at the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen. That arrangement for flute, clarinet, string quintet, harmonium, piano and percussion was intended to demonstrate to the Verein the workings of Mahler's compositional genius, and his relevance to the development of a new musical language—atonality.
With similar intentions, Joolz Gale organized an ensemble of young Berlin-based symphony musicians, and the project "Mini-Mahler" was performed at the Berlin Philharmonie Kammershaal and media platforms, including the German cultural TV network 3Sat. The project was intended to make Mahler more approachable to younger audiences – a worthy endeavor in a time when classical music appeals to a dwindling and aging listenership.
But can a small ensemble produce a generous and "orchestral" sound?
Klaus Simon included members of all of the orchestral sections, and skillfully balances the voices so that the ensemble never sounds meager or insufficient in scale. The arrangement is scored for a string quintet consisting of a first and second violin, viola, cello and contrabass; flute, oboe, bassoon and two clarinets; trumpet and two French horns; piano, accordion and two percussion. The accordion is used sparingly to add presence to brass and woodwind ensemble passages, and the piano substitutes for harp and fills out the orchestral tutti.
Conductor Gale brings to the podium a background in vocal performance (he sang in Salisbury Cathedral Choir) and a lively, questioning intellect. He elicits sensitive and emotive performances from his players. The technical demands on the musicians are perhaps greater in a small ensemble than a 100-piece orchestra: because every note stands out individually—there's literally no place to hide—intonation, bowing and attack must be perfect or the complex patterns of multiple intersecting lines will degenerate into cacophony. At the same time, the undercurrents of humor and pathos and the impending sense of the composer's own mortality should be presented without undue exaggeration or cliché. To their credit, the musicians of ensemble mini, who were recruited especially for this project, play with coherence and emotional depth. First violinist Helena Maddox Berg digs into the rustic Ländler with an ear to the folk fiddle tradition, and plays lovely cantabile lines in the adagio passages. Trumpeter Noémi Makkos performs the solo in the middle of the Rondo-Burleske (following the cymbal crash) with delicacy and purity of tone.
The liner notes describe the recording as a live performance but there is no audience present. The venue (unnamed in the liner notes) has plenty of 'warm hall' resonance, which allows the compact scale of the ensemble to develop a fuller sound than would be possible in a smaller acoustic. The instrumental seating, as heard in stereo: violins left, viola center, cello and bass right, all somewhat forward; piano left-center, accordion center; flute and oboe center-left, clarinets center, bassoon center-right; trumpet center, French horns center-right, set farther back; percussion center and right, set farthest back.
Tempi are leisurely but not slow, closer to Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Nott than to Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Chailly, with a total running time of 85:26 on a single disc. The sound quality in two-channel is accurate and transparent, with plenty of bass, detail on the strings, and smooth brass sound.
Mahlerites accustomed to the full force of a large symphony orchestra may be tempted to dismiss the project as an academic exercise. To do so would miss the point—and forego a very enjoyable listening experience. Conductor Gale, arranger Simon and ensemble mini succeed in presenting a very familiar work in an unfamiliar context, so that the music itself may be reconsidered and newly appreciated.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net