Epic Mahlerthon

by Glenn on July 17, 2017

A long July 4 holiday weekend provided an opportunity for an epic first—an attempt to listen to all the symphonies of Gustav Mahler in a short period of time. A Mahlerthon.

And to celebrate the freedom of our country, I thought I would consult one-off performances that were free from the traditional presentations of the work.

In some cases of these one-offs, you inevitably ask Why? The easy answer is perhaps the devil’s doctrine (“Because we can, we must.”) is at work. But while each of these arrangements is a compromise of Mahler’s artistic achievement, each have virtues of their own.

Symphony No. 1

Arrangement for Wind Orchestra by Kazuhiko Kawabe
Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra | Kentaro Kawase (conductor)
Recorded LIVE: Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre | 16 February 2014
Denon | COCQ-85244

This arrangement is impressive as is the playing. The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra performs at a very high level.


The one sonic problem I have with this recording comes early on in the first movement where the offstage elements—trumpets sounding a military fanfare—are drowned out by the onstage elements. That seems utterly preventable.

The basic tonality of the wind orchestra is, at times, surprisingly similar to a symphony orchestra. Many lines, of course, translate directly from orchestra to wind orchestra—trumpet solos remain trumpet solos, horn calls are still horn calls, for example. I notice they’ve added some cellos and double basses to this “wind” group, which is helpful for some effects like glissandos, which I think we would miss. But the opening melody, which in the orchestral version is played by cellos, is also played here by the cellos. You could call this, “Mahler for people who don’t like violins.”

Once in a while tempos are a little slow especially when the clarinets are assigned a tricky violin line which would be tough to play at “normal” speed.


The second movement starts off as one of the slowest versions I’ve ever heard. There are some odd tempos in this movement. The opening figure is quite slow, but then the tempo picks up a bit. But every time we get back to the opening figure we go back to the super slow tempo before picking up slightly again. It’s really strange. You can make the case for a slower tempo (I think I remember reading somewhere that Mahler expressed concern that conductors would take this movement too quickly), but you’d think it would stay at that tempo.

The “B” section was a delightful moment. Lovely chamber playing and it made me realize how loud everything had been up to this point. This was a fantastic counterpoint the rest of the movement.

With the return of the “A” section, it’s like there’s no memory of those tempo choices from earlier on in this movement. This was an odd feature of this symphony.


Again, a very slow start. Double bass is used at the opening. The klezmer band isn’t my favorite moment. The playing feels neither idiomatic—like it is a klezmer band—nor completely polished. There are some balance issues—bass drum quite present and cymbals way down in the mix so that the oom-pa effect is a little heavy on the “oom”. The “C” section in this movement—the instrumental version of Mahler’s song, “Die zwei blauen Augen”—is quite affecting and very tenderly rendered here.


The opening is more than a little challenging for the clarinets, who are trying to cover string parts, so that some of the furor you recall from orchestral performances disappears with the requisite slower tempos to get the lines covered cleanly.

A pull back in tempo right near the end, makes it tough on the players, I think. And then back up to speed. A couple more slow downs/speed ups there at the end. Not sure these are defensible tempo changes. They add an air of affectation to the performance.

*  *  *

Because it’s a live performance, “that guy” who has to shout “Bravo” immediately after the final note is there. I think it’s the same guy who screams, “Get in the hole,” at golf tournaments. It’s a little funny because the polite/subdued applause from the rest of the audience feels like a much different reaction.

The CD liner notes are almost exclusively in Japanese. I wish there was a translation to learn more about this ensemble.

There is music written specifically for wind ensemble, but the little web surfing I’ve done shows that this group likes to tackle transcriptions of orchestral music as much as music composed for wind ensemble. I would be interested in hearing more about why this arrangement was created—was it for the musicians, to give them a taste of Mahler, or for the audience, to expose them to a composer from another genre?

This is not a perfect performance. Recorded live, there are missed notes here and there. (Most are in the last movement—an issue of fatigue?) Still it’s remarkably consistent playing.

It seems like the quiet moments in this symphony translated the best and were certainly the most enjoyable. Of all the one-off recordings I listened to over the weekend, this was my least favorite.


Symphony No. 2

Arrangement for Small Orchestra by Gilbert Kaplan and Rob Mathes
Wiener KammerOrchester | Gilbert Kaplan (conductor)
Marlis Petersen (soprano) | Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Wiener Singakademie
Recorded: Vienna, Wiener Konzerthaus | 17 February 2013
AVIE | AV 2290

Gilbert Kaplan was a very wealthy man. I mention this because we sometimes are critical of wealthy people in this country, treating economics as a zero-sum game where if there is a rich guy, it is almost certain that he is unjustly rich and that others are, therefore, unjustly poor because of him.

The point is, though, sometimes wealthy people are handy to have around.

I don’t know how Kaplan earned his money beyond founding the periodical Institutional Investor and later selling it. I do know that some of his wealth he invested in the Kaplan Foundation, which engaged in all things Mahler, which is a good thing.

On my wish list is Kaplan’s The Mahler Album: New, Expanded Edition, “the definitive collection of all known photographs of the legendary composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860–1911).”

Kaplan’s story is intriguing. He became enamored with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony and decided he wanted to conduct it himself. So, he hired a conducting teacher and eventually rented a concert hall, orchestra, and choir. He went on to perform the work with more than 65 orchestras around the world, recording it twice, once with the London Symphony Orchestra (1987) and the Vienna Philharmonic (2002). The recording with the LSO is remarkable because it comes with a copy of the complete score (a new critical edition by Kaplan and Renate Stark-Voit).

*  *  *

With each of these one-off recordings there is a Why? This recording has a reasonable one. Mahler’s Second is a fantastic work, but it is a big work, largely inaccessible to many orchestras because it requires such a large orchestra. Mahler scored it for 50 wind, brass, percussion, and keyboard players, plus “The largest contingent of strings”. That gets you easily over 100 players before you add the choir and soloists.

According to the liner notes, while this Kaplan/Mathes edition of Mahler’s Second Symphony “calls for a smaller orchestra than Mahler intended, it is nonetheless a substantial orchestra about the same size as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Brahms’s First Symphony.” One of the stated goals of this project was to be “faithful to Mahler’s intentions: all principal themes and passages are led by the instruments Mahler selected.” The liner notes include the observation that while Mahler included six horns (plus four for offstage band), he “usually writes no more than three different notes at one time,” therefore this edition has only three horn players. When a fourth is required, the note is given to “a trombone, trumpet or bassoon that easily blends with the three horns.”

*  *  *

I first listened to this recording shortly after it came out a couple of years ago. I didn’t have a favorable impression of it, then. There was some discussion of the work on a Mahler email list in March of 2014 when the CD was released. This is what I wrote, then:

“I purchased a CD and listened to it two nights ago. The motivation behind the recording was good IMO–making this extraordinary music accessible for smaller bands and budgets and opening the door for more performance opportunities of Mahler’s music.

“The production quality is high, but the performance won’t be one I turn to again and again.

“Mahler’s genius in this work is the sparing use of enormous resources. The smaller orchestral footprint with this arrangement/recording makes for a smaller impact. The moments in M2 which for me are visceral and make my hair stand on end in this edition have lost their ability to overwhelm.

“My conclusion is that M2 doesn’t really lend itself to reductions. The analogy is not quite right, but I feel about this recording the way I feel about an abridged edition of any epic novel—‘we’ve lost something.’ Mahler is wrestling with ultimate things in an epic and grand way and this arrangement surrenders much of its power to move.

“In addition the orchestration is, for obvious reasons, less colorful. And there is something to be said about the space that a traditional performance requires with a big stage and additional orchestral resources “out there” somewhere. This performance sonically was right there in front of me. Safe. Contained.

“First movement feels a bit mechanical. The second is better, but lacks the natural rubato of more idiomatic playing. Third movement was my favorite after this first hearing. The fourth movement is the least-affected by this reduced arrangement, but much of the poignancy of the moment is lost because what comes before is such a benign statement. The last movement is the most problematic for me–both the arrangement and the performance, in particular the choir (Wiener Singakademie).

“Most of the problem is with me as I am pretty well stamped by other traditional performances. It’s possible that someone hearing this work for the first time with a chamber orchestra will find it a powerfully moving work. I applaud Gilbert Kaplan for the investment and efforts and wish him success in making Mahler accessible to a wider audience. I think it’s with new audiences where this work will be more effective.”

I stand by these first impressions, although I find myself feeling less critical of the enterprise today. I recall having listened to some traditional versions of this symphony perhaps too close to hearing this one. It’s an unfair comparison. None of these one-offs actually compare favorably to the original when you come down to it, (although a few seem to have delights all their own).

I like this recording more and less now that a few years have gone by. I am more impressed by the effort of the playing. The brass players, in particular, are solid. Condensing the work makes it more challenging. When it normally takes a large group of people to carry a load and you want to carry that load with fewer people, you really need the right people. It would be interesting to interview the brass players in this chamber orchestra to see if any of them had played the original version and to get their perspective on how it is to play this one.

The second movement is my least favorite. This is the movement which, after all the drama of the opening, should take us out into the countryside and bucolic memories. Instead, I find myself a little nervous because the music doesn’t quite have a groove. Rather than a push and pull to the tempo, it sort of feels uncertain. This movement makes me question the connection between the conductor and orchestra. Between the intentions of a conductor and the performance practice of the players there is a place to find balance. It feels like they hadn’t quite found that place.

Mr. Kaplan died of cancer on 1 January 2016. I read obituaries here and here.


Symphony No. 3

Transcribed for Organ and played by David Briggs
Recorded: Oppenheim, Germany, the church of St. Katherine | 21 May 2011
Chestnut Music | CD 010

David Briggs is crazy. Not in the clinical, walking down the street shouting at the voices in his head, sense, but in the I know you’re determined, but can’t we talk you out of climbing Mt. Everest? variety. That feels like a reasonably appropriate metaphor.

This is a tough climb for well over one hundred musicians working together; it’s a lot for just one. I know that less is more, but is one enough?

There is the preparation, consisting of first creating a transcription for organ (here you can see a sample of his transcription—from the second movement) and, second, preparing to perform it. All of that before the actual performance/recording. The liner notes say this was recorded live—consider that: 90 minutes of continuous, focused performing by one player. No laying back for a moment and letting another player cover. No checking out briefly during an extended rest. It’s a massive undertaking and a testimony to stamina. And, clearly, a labor of love. How big is the market for recordings of organ transcriptions of the longest symphony in the general orchestral repertoire?

Of the three one-offs so far, this is obviously the most different. It takes you a while to adjust your expectations from what it should sound like to what it actually does sound like. I think with both the wind orchestra and the smaller orchestra, every effort was made to make the piece sound as much like the original as possible. There’s a similar hope, here, but an orchestra and an organ simply don’t sound alike. While many stops on the organ have the names of orchestral instruments, these are analogies, not direct “digital” references/samplings, so an exact approximation just isn’t possible in most cases.

There’s a passage in the liner notes worth quoting at length because it explains Briggs’ approach to creating a transcription like this (he’s also done Mahler’s Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth):

“Several important ingredients go into both the making and the performance of successful organ transcriptions. I always start from the full orchestral score and not a piano reduction. It’s perhaps surprising that, with Mahler’s symphonies, it’s not necessary to reduce too much, or to leave too much out. If you look at the sketches, things are often quite clear (and written for piano over three staves). The magic with Mahler comes, of course, from the subtlety of the orchestral colour, but with modern organ console technology and a degree of imagination it’s possible to replicate (or more accurately translate) this in a new medium. It’s important, too, not to make the transcription unplayable. Anything that has too many notes loses its effectiveness, and the art of knowing what to leave out is core to the technique. I tend to find ways, through octave transpositions, reorganising of the voicing of the harmony, and so on, to make the music lie well under the hands and both feet. Processing each note is a very time-consuming (and rather therapeutic) exercise—each bar requires a large amount of thought and this is a perfect way to get to know a score very intimately. The organist, of course, has four main advantages over the pianist, when it comes to performing orchestral transcriptions: (a) the ability to incorporate either single or double pedal parts; (b) more expressive potential through registrational colour and swell boxes; (c) more possibility for sustaining intense orchestral crescendi; and (d) very often performing in great cathedrals, where the acoustic and aesthetic ambience can add so much to the emotional impact of this music.”

Clearly, this isn’t Briggs’ first rodeo.

Any criticism I would offer would fall mostly under the category of “it’s not the original,” which isn’t helpful when you’re dealing with an acknowledged compromise. But I will say I missed three things: the crisp snap of the snare drum in the first movement, the tympani at the end of the symphony, and, every once in a while, when the volume of the organ is loud, the sound gets a little muddy (though it certainly is stirring) and I missed the clarified power that is possible with an orchestra. (Or, perhaps, it’s better to say that the resonance of a giant cathedral muddies the sound).

The alto solo, “O Mensch,” would have benefited from a closer microphone. The microphones appear to be at the back of a very large cathedral, which isn’t a problem for the organ, but the soloist sounded so far away that it was hard to make out the words. The coughs, presumably from an audience member, that made it onto the recording were much more present/intimate.

The best part of this recording is the choice of solo instruments and the delightful colors Briggs produces, particularly in the quieter moments. It’s in the chamber sections that I appreciate most what Briggs is doing. I especially loved the choice of stops to play the posthorn solo in the third movement—that was extraordinary.

The last movement is the most successful in my opinion. Perhaps the adagio is the most “organ-like” of the movements, but it is wonderful what Briggs does with the up and down of volume and the sometimes-subtle-other-times-striking changes in sound color and dynamics. An analysis of this movement could probably serve as a master class in organ studies. Even as I enjoyed listening, I wondered how much nuance I was missing.

I listened with headphones. Some time it would be interesting to hear this on a proper sound system, especially to hear the low end rumble or, better, to actually be in the room where the music is being played. There is nothing quite like an organ with all the stops out.

I’ve  written previously on another of Briggs’ orchestral transcriptions—my beloved Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

On a personal note, I once ordered a CD from davidbriggs.org. The wrong one came and I emailed in to request a resolution. It turns out when you email to david-briggs.org, Mr. Briggs, himself, emails back. And if you ask a question, he replies. A generous man. It turns out he’s not so crazy as much as “productively neurotic,” as Jim Collins might put it.

Organ purists would tell him to play music written purposefully for the organ. He does that. But I get the sense that Briggs is a multi-cultural kind of guy. I think he would be as pleased to hear an orchestra play a transcribed organ work as he is pleased to create an organ transcription of an orchestral work. I would love to hear him play.


Symphony No. 4
Arrangement for Chamber Orchestra by Klaus Simon
Linda Mabbs (soprano)
New Orchestra of Washington | Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez (conductor)
Recorded: Rockville, Maryland, Omega Studios, Studio A | 3–5 October 2014
Acis | APL34349

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was first performed in 1901. In 1921 Erwin Stein created a chamber arrangement for The Society for Private Musical Performances, set up by Arnold Schoenberg. The Stein arrangement was the alternative to Mahler’s version for nearly 90 years. In 2007, Klaus Simon created this new arrangement. I found an article written by Simon about this effort, which gives some good background.

Of all the one-offs for the weekend, this is the one I most anticipated listening to. I was eager to hear how Simon would attempt to improve on what was already a fairly established and often-recorded version.

It’s interesting to consider that a chamber version was created for the shortest of Mahler’s symphonies and the smallest required orchestra. In other words, a chamber work of Mahler’s “most chamber-like” symphony. The idea is that good music will “work in a different form.”

Mahler’s Fourth wasn’t the only chamber-version of a larger work created for Schoenberg’s Society. A more or less standardized list of instruments were used for these works regardless of who the composer/arranger was. (Composing alongside Stein were Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, and others.) Simon “personally felt the lack of the horn and the bassoon, in particular, and wanted more colour and greater richness.” I’ve heard the Stein version a number of times. The horn is quite lovely in the Simon version.

Some first impressions:

1. These are great players and the performance is well-rehearsed.

2. Mahler’s Fourth is an astonishing counterpoint to the Third to begin with, but the colors of a chamber orchestra shine in contrast with the more homogenous-sounding organ. (At least by way of comparison. Normally, an organ has plenty of color.)

3. Was that an accordion in there? I guess it’s a harmonium, which could have a similar sound, based on the score.

The Fourth is Mahler’s most intimate symphony and I think this chamber version maintains that intimacy.

The third movement is the magical one in both the orchestral and this chamber version. The key to a successful Mahler 4 performance is the final movement. The symphony finishes with this beautiful little song about a child’s view of heaven. Everything leads to it. The soprano makes or breaks it. Here the soprano does a fine job in terms of blending with the chamber group. In the orchestral version, the soprano has the difficult job of needing to sound “child-like” but be heard over an entire orchestra. Here is the opposite problem. The soprano can’t sound like she is on an opera stage.

My view of this recording was influenced heavily by the next one I listened to, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 by Natalia Ensemble.


Symphony No. 5

Arranged for 17 players and played by Natalia Ensemble
Recorded: Spain, Auditorio de Zaragoza, Sala Mozart | 24–26 April 2016
Natalia Ensemble/Cobra Records | Cobra 0055

This recording was a crowdfunding project. Natalia Ensemble formed in 2013 and consists of a group of old friends (though they look quite young, at least to these middle-aged eyes) who “got together for a week during the summer to play a chamber music concert.” They’ve continued to play together. And then they decided to record this version of Mahler 5 that they created as a group—no one person gets credit for this arrangement. The ensemble stresses the “bottom up” approach to their music-making and development.

The liner notes do some work in the realm of apologetics, referencing Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, which failed financially “mainly due to the Viennese hyperinflation” after World War I, but which produced the Stein version of Mahler’s Fourth. The 60’s and the 80’s brought “the revival of Mahler’s music” and the rediscovery of Stein’s arrangement. While that chamber arrangement (along with all the other arrangements) came about for the practical purpose of producing contemporary music at a high standard for a wider audience, musicians noticed it “rendered a considerable service to the music, allowing a clearer realization of the score, for instance bringing new light to the counterpoint and polyphonic writing.”

One of the things that makes the rendering of Mahler’s music in chamber form successful is how much of his music has that chamber—a conversation among instruments—quality. In terms of a reduction, the writer concludes, “There is no loss and much to gain.”

Natalia Ensemble first arranged Mahler’s Fourth, but the Fifth they decided to put on record—one imagines because there are so many recordings of the Stein version of the Fourth already out there (and now the Simon Fourth) and no other extant chamber versions of the Fifth that I can find.

*  *  *

There is so much to enjoy in this recording.

The arrangement works—I especially appreciate that though this was in essence composition by committee, no one on the committee seems to feel the need to always be playing. For example, the piano is quite present at certain moments, often for important structural reasons, then it goes away for long periods of time.

The playing is superb. As a brass player I marvel at the trumpet (Jonathan Müller) and horn (Maciej Baranowski) playing on this recording. This is “a big blow” for the lead trumpet and horn even when they have a section supporting them. On their own, this is a real testimony to stamina as they have to cover so many other parts in additional to the one normally assigned to them.

And, somehow, the actual recorded sound is better than the Fourth (see above) that I listened to last night. This recording sounds like the players are arranged in a space so that you hear the sound as it might have been heard in the room where it was recorded. The Simon Fourth of last night has a quality that makes me wonder where I am—it feels like the recording engineer decided where the listener would hear certain instruments.

Aside: I later went back and re-listened to some of the Fourth. The recording of the Fourth is the sonic equivalent to listening to the ensemble perform in a closet. The sound is close in and the instruments are all on top of each other. It’s impossible, in other words, for the music to be performed the way it sounds. The playing remains remarkable, but I think the concept of the way that recording should sound hadn’t been thought through adequately. I had said that the Fourth was the recording I most anticipated listening to—with this comparison, it’s a little disappointing.

The third movement really grabbed me. The horn playing was unreal. This is, in essence, a horn concerto in the middle of a symphony. But then the waltz music kicked in and I loved the stylistic nature of the string playing—with a bit of Viennese waltz swing. And then there is a moment where in the orchestral version the horn soloist does some back and forth with another horn. It’s always interesting to see how well the two horns can blend. Here in this recording the trumpet substitutes for a horn and the blend is superb—that was an astonishing tonal change.

The fourth movement was sublime. The string playing was, again, superb. The harp had its moment to shine. And the harmonium provided continuity. This is a gorgeously realized movement.

Of the one-offs I’ve heard so far this weekend, this is my favorite.

One quibble—there are occasional moments (particularly in the final movement) where it sounds like someone is tapping. I can’t figure it out—is it an intentional effect (if so, very annoying) or the result of someone’s play (if so, way too close-miked)?


Symphony No. 6

Arrangement for Piano for Four Hands by Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942)
Piano Duo Zenker/Trenker
Recorded: Bad Arolsen, Fürstliche Reitbahn | 9–10 April 1991
Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG Gold) | MDG 330 0837-2

I haven’t listened to the three (or four, if you include Das Lied von der Erde) Mahler symphonies between the Fifth and Ninth nearly as much as the rest, and this little exercise is a good excuse to focus in on this work.

One of the things said about Mahler is that his music is autobiographical. If so, the Sixth Symphony is an ironic one. The music has a dark and heavy quality about it but was composed during a time of profound happiness for Mahler. The Sixth isn’t performed as much as other Mahler symphonies, though it was just a few years ago (November 2012) that we were able to hear a performance by the Oregon Symphony.

In pre-Gramophone days, the piano transcription was the only way to hear symphonic music outside the concert hall. In these days of the ubiquitous and often highly personalized presence of music in our lives, it’s seems odd to record music that was a substitution for the actual when you can mostly hear the actual, at least through the interpolation of a recording. What I’ve been finding the last few days is that these transcriptions/arrangements/translations (whatever we want to call them) provide a new way to hear the music.

With the piano transcription, it’s a little like a grayscale conversion of a photograph. You don’t quite see all the colors, but you get the bones of the image. Perhaps that’s better—like a skeleton. You can see how it all hangs together, even if it’s not quite the same thing.

The liner notes indicate that this piano transcription by Alexander von Zemlinsky was created the year that Mahler first conducted the Sixth Symphony and that “Mahler and Zemlinsky evidently performed the work in Mahler’s home with Arnold Schönberg in attendance.” The idea is that this transcription, then, comes with a certain legitimacy.

This is beautifully recorded and the piano playing is clean.

The first movement is so relentless. The last movement of Mahler’s Fifth has that same quality, but there the affect and effect are different. The Fifth is a joyous exclamation. The opening of the Sixth is an restless, neurotic, manic march.

On this recording, they put the Adagio second, which is a beautiful (and necessary?) contrast after the force of the opening. The playing here is exquisite. This movement is stunning. Mahler’s adagios from his Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth are each as beautiful as they are unique in their approach. There is a fragility to this movement that brings a measure of heartbreak to the listening.

(The order of the inner movements of this symphony is kind of a thing. It was composed as Scherzo then Adagio, but right before the first performance, Mahler changed the order to Adagio then Scherzo, which is how he performed it from then on. This paper, published by the Kaplan Foundation, tells the story and attempts to set the record straight.)

The scherzo looks backward and forward. It begins with the opening figure of the symphony, albeit in ¾ time. But then it immediately introduces new material. I can see how this would work as the second movement. Mahler does a similar kind of thing in the Fifth symphony where the first two movements share some connective material.

The manic and panic in the last movement comes through really well, here, though nothing can substitute for the hammer blows. And I think some intentional stridency in the orchestral score goes missing in this piano version.


Symphony No. 7
Arrangement for Piano for Four Hands by Alfredo Caella (1883–1947)
Piano Duo Zenker/Trenker
Recorded: Bad Arolsen, Fürstliche Reitbahn | 20–23 January 1992
Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG Gold) | MDG 330 0837-2

The Seventh is a hard nut for me to crack. It feels like a box of motives that were shaken up and spread along a line. This is not (yet!?) my favorite Mahler symphony and I was hoping the simplicity of this piano transcription would help me appreciate it better. I haven’t quite figured out how the whole thing holds together and it’s not any clearer after this. Because it’s recorded by the same players as the Sixth Symphony, I don’t think it’s a problem with the playing (although the lack of cowbell and mandolin in this recording is conspicuous). I need to do some reading about and analysis of this symphony.

I wonder if there is a way to measure the volume of the Mahler Symphonies after No. 5? Mahler seems to be a making a bigger, bolder, and consistently louder statement.

My favorite movement in this performance was the second Nachtmusik, which felt like it lent itself the best to this transcription.

Aside: I skipped the 8th. I know of only one one-off version: David Briggs on organ, which I’ll save for another day. (I don’t feel I know the work well enough, yet, to appreciate it in translation.) I also went right on by Das Lied von der Erde, which some don’t really think of as a symphony anyway. It was no longer the holiday weekend by the time I could finish my Mahlerthon.


Symphony No. 9
Arrangement for Chamber Orchestra by Klaus Simon
ensemble mini | Joolz Gale (conductor)
Ars Produktion | ARS 38 155

And so here we are at the end. I’ve listened previously to two versions of the Klaus Simon arrangement for chamber orchestra. (One is by ensemble mini which I’ve written about here and the other is by Camerata RCO which I’ve written about here.)

I elected to go with the performance by Joolz Gale and ensemble mini that I heard a couple of years ago and favored over the one by Camerata RCO.

I love how ensemble mini position themselves. They are working to create a space for themselves by framing their music-making in the larger picture of economic uncertainty and climate change:

Small is beautiful. In these tough financial times, exploring great music in mini ways cannot be more relevant. No longer can the fat-cat orchestras sit back and relax: ensemble mini is the carbon-neutral and environmentally-friendly answer to classical music.

This symphony is dark, heavy, and at times terrifying, yet this performance has an intimacy and warmth about it, like walking into the house on a cold wintery night and finding a wood fire going.

What is it that is so soothing about music that is so essentially elegiac in nature?

I didn’t write much as I listened to this, I just enjoyed it. For whatever reason, I don’t find myself with the complaint that I had about the reduction of the Second Symphony. This arrangement works for me, probably because it is so different from the original.


*  *  *

I don’t know when I’ll do another Mahlerthon, but I learned a few things through this process:

1. I’m sure I heard something in college about Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, but age has helped me to place things in a better context, which means, for example, that events placed in Post World War I Germany have a different significance today than they did in college. It’s easier to imagine the difficulties in producing art in this era and to respect this urge to make music at the highest levels.

2. Also, it’s amazing to think how the people from Schoenberg’s Society have come and gone, but that the art endures.

3. The least intrusive arrangements (The First for wind ensemble and the Second for smaller orchestra) were the least satisfying. It’s as though the more drastic the changes, the easier it is to appreciate them rather than simply noticing that, for example, a certain line for violin in the original doesn’t work as well for clarinet.

4. The smaller the arrangement, the more astonishing the performers have to be. Or maybe this is an axiom: the smaller the arrangement, the more astonishing the performers have to be to pull it off convincingly. ensemble mini and Natalia Ensemble are astonishing. There is nowhere to hide.

5. When you listen to a CD, you are listening to a recording, not a performance. Perhaps it’s an obvious point to make, but the recording is a means of hearing a performance, not the actual performance itself, which means it’s a kind of interpolation. The recording engineer/producer has significant power and control for how benign or interfering that interpolation is. The better the musical artist, the more essential is the quality of the recording engineer. Another way to say this is that the engineer/producer is an artistic partner, or at least should be considered that way. You don’t want the recording to get in the way.