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The Mahler Album - Amsterdam Sinfonietta

The Mahler Album - Amsterdam Sinfonietta

Channel Classics  CCS SA 31511

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical


Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (adagio), Symphony No. 5 (adagietto), Beethoven/Mahler: String Quartet Op. 95

Amsterdam Sinfonietta
Candida Thompson


A quartet for string orchestra! That sounds strange to you. I already know all the objections that will be raised: ruination of intimacy, of individuality. But that is an error. What I intend is only an ideal representation of the quartet. Chamber music is primarily written for the living room. It is really enjoyed only by the performers. The four ladies and gentlemen who sit at their music stands are also the audience towards which this music turns. If chamber music is transferred to the concert hall, this intimacy is already lost. But even more is lost. In a large space the four voices are lost and do not speak to the listener with the power that the composer wanted to give them. I give them this power by strengthening the voices. I unravel the expansion that is dormant in the voices and give the sounds wings. Thus Mahler in an open letter in the Viennese newspaper Die Wage in January 1899. (from: liner notes by Willem de Bordes)

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Review by John Miller - November 16, 2011

After their delightful Bohemian Album, Amsterdam Sinfonietta now bring us The Mahler Album. Thankfully this is not one of those popular adagio compilations, with a sequence of saccharine over- emoted slow movements, but a well-thought out programme from the Netherlands string orchestra.

The Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony was an obvious choice, being the composer's only piece for string orchestra (albeit with harp). We do know that Mahler conducted it as a separate piece at least once, so he was not averse to lifting it out of its symphonic context. As a gloriously tender, romantic piece, made magical by the inspired addition of the harp part, the little Adagietto has become abused as one of the darlings of the media industry, appearing in films, adverts and radio (often in bizarre instrumental arrangements), where it regularly tops the charts. It has even been associated with funerals of high-end politicians such as Robert Kennedy. Good though it is that Mahler's music should reach the general public, the Adagietto is often distorted, the primary problems being excessive slowing of its overall tempo, mawkish overemphasis and pulling about of its phrasing.

This movement from Mahler's Fifth Symphony has been one of the most notable occurrences of a general slowing in tempo for C19th and early C20th music, particular manifested in 'slow' movements (Adagietto implies a tempo somewhat faster than an Adagio). Mahler gave no metronome markings so we must rely on reported timings. We have no evidence about movement lengths of the première but in his second performance in Hamburg (1905), the Adagietto lasted about nine minutes. This cannot be taken as an absolute yardstick, as Mahler, and any other competent conductor, would take into account the nature of the hall ambience as well as the size and competence of the orchestra when determining tempi. For example, at a 1907 performance by Mahler of the Fifth symphony in St Petersburg, the Adagietto was timed at about 7 minutes. Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter knew Mahler's performing practices very well, and their recorded timings are Mengelberg (1926) 7 minutes (8'20" in 1939), Bruno Walter (1938) almost 8 minutes (7'40" in 1947). At the other end of the time-scale we have Bernstein (1987) at 11' and Karajan (1973) at 11'50' - there may well be other longer versions.

Artistic Director of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta Candida Thompson set down the present reading at 11 minutes, clearly at the slower end of the performance spectrum. Normally I would find this pace too self-indulging and cosy for my taste; the text clearly implies an ardent, not a reposeful mood. Mengelberg said that he was told by Mahler that the piece was a love token for Alma Schindler, later Mahler's wife. But other evidence suggests there is good reason to doubt this, including Mahler's treatment of it in the ensuing (final) movement of the Fifth, where it is parodied in several different ways, at a much faster tempo. Mahler never did this with his avowed love themes for Alma. However, slow as the Sinfonietta's pace is, Mahler's fanatically detailed expression marks in the score are followed closely in the present recording, with no additional emotional inflections, so the music at least flows naturally in a touching and convincing performance.

Mahler made two transcriptions for string orchestra of Classical string quartets; the present Op. 95 by Beethoven, and Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden'. His lengthy exposition of reasons for making such transcriptions is given in full in the disc's booklet. Although recognising that quartet music is written more for the players than an audience, he maintains that the contemporary practice of hearing quartets in large concert halls is best done by amplifying the number of players to scale up the sound and give back the music's immediacy to a large audience.

The "Quartetto Serioso", Op. 95 dates to 1810 and is the outcome of Theresa Malfatti's rejection of Beethoven's marriage proposal to her. Already coping with progressive deafness and social solitude, Beethoven wrote to Baron Glichenstein, his go-between with Theresa, "The news that you give me has cast me down from the regions of highest ecstasy into a deep abyss... I therefore cannot attempt to find support except in the deepest, most intimate part of my being; outside there is thus nothing for me". The composer himself gave the quartet its name (for once), writing to his publisher that "the quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and must never be performed in public". Odd, therefore, that Mahler should choose this particular quartet for augmentation to a large audience - except of course that he identified with its unsettled and unsettling attitude as well as its volatile expression. It is indeed a difficult work, for players and listeners alike.

Certainly the Amsterdam Sinfonia players tear into the opening triple unison with shocking attack, and follow with waspish energy, although relaxing to play more sweetly as Beethoven's moods shift mercurially. However, the first bars should only be at forte, while the Sinfonia give it all they've got, having little left for the first fortissimo some bars later. I got the impression from the whole interpretation that the quartet has been displaced from Beethoven's time into the language of Schoenberg's 'Verklarte Nacht', so histrionically vivid is this interpretation. While lovers of string orchestras digging in en masse will enjoy this, I found Marco Boni's rendering with the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra to be much more convincing, as it maintains the manners of its Classical roots, with proportional dynamics and expression which better convey the intimacy of the quartet as Beethoven's overt self-communing.

Mahler's Tenth (and unfinished symphony) without doubt offers music dedicated to his wife Alma, and to the composer's pain in finally realising that his suspicions of her having an affair with the artist Walter Gropius were confirmed. The slow first movement was fully orchestrated by Mahler himself. It is presented here in an arrangement for string orchestra by Hans Stadimair, made for his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra in 1971, not long after the arrival of the performing version of the symphony by Deryck Cooke. Gidon Kremer made a fine recording of it with the Kremerata.

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta seem to have taken this piece into their hearts; this is given much the finest performance on this Album, despite my initial misgivings. While obviously lacking some of the impact of the full orchestration, especially the long-held high trumpet scream above the famous several-fold 12-note dissonant chord, the arrangement is almost miraculous in conveying the essence of the music. The lonely viola solos are sensitively done, and many other interwoven solos demonstrate more clearly how very contrapuntal this movement is, as the texture is opened and placed on display. Most convincing, then, and despite having a number of performances of the full Symphony 10's, I shall find myself more than willing to listen to this excerpt.

Recorded in two venues (according to the incipit in the booklet), the sonics here don't quite manage the warmth and bloom of the Czech Album's sound from the BachZaal in Amsterdam, with its superb bass resonance. The sound is drier in one venue compared to the other, and in the Beethoven particularly, the string tone at times is aggressive. One venue has some persistent throbbing LF rumble which is audible during quiet passages, notably at the opening of the Adagio from the 10th. I missed the bloom, but many will find the attack of massed strings exciting. Depth focus and pinpointing of solo and group positions in the sound-field are exemplary as usual.

An intriguing look at some of Mahler's work from unusual points of view, and attractive for that; well worth investigating.

Copyright © 2011 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Graham Williams - December 6, 2011

Candida Thompson and her excellent Amsterdam Sinfonietta continue their fascinating series of chamber works arranged for a string orchestra of around twenty players. However, on this SACD entitled 'The Mahler Album', there is a major difference from what is to be heard on the earlier albums in that two of the three works on this disc were originally written for a full symphony orchestra.

For the famous 'Adagietto' from Mahler's 5th Symphony it was only necessary to add a harp to the string body to match Mahler's original scoring. Performances of this movement on record in the 1960s and 70s tended to treat it in a lugubrious not to say treacly manner, thanks not least to its use in Visconti's 1971 film 'Death in Venice'. Today it is generally accepted that Mahler intended this 'Adagietto' as a declaration of his love for Alma Schindler, soon to be his bride, and in recent years conductors have in general adopted swifter tempi. Any misgivings that I might have had from noting the stated playing time of 11'.00” (the actual timing is in fact 10'.25") for this piece were at once dispelled by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta's outstandingly beautiful performance of it on this disc. The smaller body of strings provides a welcome clarity and intimacy to the sound, particularly at the bass end of the spectrum, and this coupled with the Sinfonietta's tasteful application of portamento yields a flowing performance that for the listener is the aural equivalent of luxuriating in a warm relaxing bath.

Beethoven's Op. 95 F minor String Quartet that he called 'Quartetto serioso' is given in the arrangement that Mahler made in 1899. It received its first performance during Mahler's first season as chief conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a relationship that lasted barely three years. In a letter to the Viennese press prior to the performance that is reproduced in the booklet accompanying this disc, Mahler provides his justification for making an arrangement of this quartet for performances in the large concert hall. His arrangement of one of Beethoven's most intriguing and experimental chamber works amplifies every aspect of what is already a composition of powerful thematic contrasts, and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta gives a performance that takes no prisoners. They attack the opening with unrelenting energy and maintain their considerable momentum throughout a work which contains hardly any slow music. No attempt is made to scale the quartet down to its original roots and the result is as exhilarating as I am sure Mahler intended it to be.

The Austrian composer and conductor Hans Stadlmair made a transcription for 15 strings of the 'Adagio' movement from Mahler's incomplete 10th Symphony in 1971 for his Munich Chamber Orchestra. In this performance by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, the string body is increased to 23 players which adds a welcome richness to the sound without compromising the textural clarity of the arrangement. The opening viola melody is most beautifully phrased and when the full strings enter the effect is glorious. I had expected to find the absence of Mahler's magnificent horn writing in this movement to be a problem, but such is the skill of Stadlmair's transcription that they are hardly missed. The Sinfonietta's pianissimo playing just before the climatic outburst (18' 41”) ensures maximum dynamic impact, but alas, when the point in the full orchestral version at which the trumpet's piercing A cuts through the dissonant chords is reached (19'55”), the effect here is merely strident rather than terrifying.

The sound quality is on the whole excellent, possessing both warmth and a good sense of depth and space. The 10th Symphony's 'Adagio' does have some low frequency rumble (possibly traffic noise outside the recording venue?) but for most listeners this will not be a major problem.

A most recommendable issue, especially for jaded Mahlerites!

Copyright © 2011 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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