Mahler 9 | ensemble mini | joolz gale

by Glenn on March 16, 2015

Note: I have included some audio examples in this post. They are small samples of larger works included here for educational purposes in the spirit of fair use. I have purchased and own the recordings that are included here. For readers interested in acquiring any of them, information may be found at the end of the post.

This will, eventually, be a short review of a recently-released performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in a new chamber version by Klaus Simon as performed by ensemble mini, conducted by Joolz Gale.

Accompanying the history of classical music is another narrative that might be titled, “Making Big Things Smaller” or “Making Expensive Things Cheaper” or “Making Complicated Things Simpler.”

If, in the years after Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 5, you wanted to hear that symphony, your option was to find an orchestra that was playing it and go hear it. That was it. There were no recordings, strange as that is to imagine. You either heard the symphony when it was being played or you did not.

Here is the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

 

For a period of time there was a practice of creating piano transcriptions or ensemble renditions of popular orchestra works for performance on a smaller scale, which meant they were cheaper to produce or simpler to perform because you didn’t have all those players and the need for that large performing space and you could hear the music by yourself or with a smaller group of people. (Let’s face it, audiences can be distracting. So much is intolerable: the perfume quantity and/or quality of the woman sitting near you, the coughing at the worst possible moment, that guy—it’s always a guy—who can’t allow any gap between when the music ends and his overenthusiastic “BRAVO!”

When Franz Liszt created piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, it meant that one person could play, say, Beethoven’s 5th. (I suspect Liszt may not have been the first person to create a piano transcription of a major orchestral work, but he’s the first that came to mind.) You didn’t need all those orchestra players or that big concert hall if you had a good piano player. And if you were that good piano player, you might say that you could play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony all by yourself.

This is the same section of music as in the previous example, this time a piano transcription by Franz Liszt as played by Konstantin Scherbakov.

 

In economics they speak of trade-offs and compromises. That is true of these reductions. The variety of tone colors of an orchestra cannot be reproduced by a pianist or imitated by a small ensemble. And, obviously there’s a certain loss of power. But you can hear the music—the tunes, the harmonies, the rhythmic pulse. And if the arrangement and performer are good it can be an enjoyable experience.

You can oversimplify the telling of this story because the reductionist impulse is just one side of a two-way street. Yes, it was common to take orchestral works and reduce them for smaller group or piano, but it’s also happened that piano works have been orchestrated for larger forces. For example, Pictures at an Exhibition was originally a piano work by Modest Mussorgsky. It has been orchestrated most famously by Maurice Ravel, but also by Leopold Stokowski and Vladimir Ashkenazy and, perhaps, others.

Here are a few moments from “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, played first on piano by Evgeny Kissin then transitioning to a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

 

There are many pieces that seem to do well in a variety of formats, for example The Blue Danube waltz seems to work whether for piano, small ensemble, or full orchestra.

This is a musical montage of three sections of The Blue Danube Waltz (An der schönen blauen Donau) by Johann Strauss II. The first section is a piano duet by Duo Crommelynck, the second is a small ensemble called I Salonisti, and the final is the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Willi Boskovsky.

 

A word about the organ. It’s a funny instrument because whether we’re talking about a traditional symphonic/church pipe organ or a theater organ, although it’s played by one person (normally), there is nothing small, inexpensive, or simple about it. Plus, you don’t take the organ anywhere; you go to the organ. But the organ has been part of this reductionist/expansionist process. Works for orchestra have been taken on by organists and works for orchestra have been arranged for organ. Bach’s organ works are especially popular for orchestras.

Here are a few moments from the beginning of the fugue from Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 by J.S. Bach as played on organ by Marie-Claire Alain.

 

And here it is for orchestra, in a transcription by Sir Edward Elgar as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lonard Slatkin.

 

Since this post is supposed to be about making Mahler smaller, perhaps the organ is a good transition to the music of Mahler, whose music has been transcribed for organ. Mahler’s vocal piece, “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) exists in both a piano version from his collection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and in an orchestral version,  a delightful, quiet moment just before the finale of Mahler’s grand Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.”

For reference purposes, here is the opening of “Urlicht” with piano accompaniment. Christianne Stotijn is the mezzo-soprano and Julius Drake is playing piano.

 

I recently discovered a performance of this work that has been transcribed for organ.

Here is the opening of “Urlicht” with Stacey Rishoi (mezzo-soprano) and Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ) at the E.M. Skinner Organ located in the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Robin is credited with the transcription.


This is “Urlicht” as performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer. Birgit Remmert (alto) is heard briefly at the opening.

 

I find it fascinating how well the colors of the organ match the colors of the brass Mahler deploys in the opening of that movement. Away from the context of the Mahler symphony, I find the textures of the organ appealing. This is really well done.

I’m not sure all of Mahler’s music transcribes as well for organ. For example, I know of at least one transcription for organ of the entire Mahler Symphony No. 5.

Here is the climax of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 as performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

 

Here is the same section as performed by David Briggs on the organ of Gloucester Cathedral.

 

I’m torn between, on the one hand, being stunned by the superhuman effort to pull this off (this is a 70-minute+ symphony) and, on the other hand, feeling like the organ is not an ideal conveyor of all that Mahler is trying to do here. It’s a curiosity that isn’t necessarily compelling. As impressive as the accomplishment is, for me there are too many compromises, which is part of the deal in making music, in this case Mahler, small.

A rabbit trail which I am too ignorant to chase at this point is the role of recordings in making music smaller, cheaper, simpler. Once the recording industry flowers in the middle of the 20th century, you could, yourself, make music if you had a record and a player. You didn’t need to heare a performance. To make music all you needed to do was know how to play the record (or cassette tape or compact disc or digital audio file) on the player.

All of this is prelude to say how intrigued I am by a new transcription of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 for chamber orchestra. In a time when Mahler has, in a way, never been smaller—you can put many of his symphonies on an iPod or other digital audio player—still there are attempts to perform his music live in a more intimate way. Here is an introduction to the first performance of the “mini-Mahler” number 9.

The liner notes say more about the provenance of this performance/recording:

 “The story of this beautiful new transcription of Mahler’s 9th Symphony began when conductor Joolz Gale invited the arranger Klaus Simon to become a partner for “mini-Mahler”, ensemble mini‘s eight-concert series at the Philharmonie Berlin. Beginning the series in 2010 with transcriptions of the 1st and 4th Symphonies, ensemble mini went on to commission and premiere the 9th Symphony and Wunderhorn-Lieder. The idea behind the project was to be inspired by—and to continue—the practises of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, Vienna (1981–1921), which aimed to explore contemporary symphonic music in the forum of the mini-orchestra. With its newly commissioned arrangement, ensemble mini brings this short-lived tradition into the 21st century, aiming to present Mahler from a fresh new perspective.”

I am reasonably familiar with the Mahler 4 arrangement by Erwin Stein that was created for Schoenberg’s Society. I’ve never heard it live, but I’ve frequently turned to a recording of it when I want to refresh my ears for Mahler’s music. Mahler can be big and bombastic. It’s a little like this:

And so, sometimes, Mahler on a smaller scale can really enjoyable. I love this new arrangement and recording by ensemble mini. The Mahler 9th lends itself pretty well to this kind of reduction. It’s a symphony with clean lines and counterpoint and it feels like what you may be losing in color as you move to the smaller group is matched by a gain in a remarkable intimacy.

I don’t think every Mahler symphony lends itself to reductions. Some months ago I listened to a Mahler 2 reduction. The idea was to make Mahler’s 2nd symphony accessible for smaller orchestras and budgets, but much got lost in the appropriation process. Listening to Mahler 2 in its original setting is like driving a fully-loaded test car off the car lot. This version felt like the stripped down model—windows you actually have to roll down by hand. It’s cheaper, but I do miss that moon roof and the power windows, etc.

What is marvelous about this recording of Mahler 9 is how uncompromised it feels. The choices and trade-offs have been managed exceptionally well.

You can follow a score here. One of the things you notice is that the harmonium (pump organ) was replaced in this performance by an accordion (Franka Herwig). The first time I became aware of it, partway through the first movement, it caught me off guard: Is that an accordion?

 A few moments in the middle of the first movement of Mahler’s 9th symphony in a new arrangement by Klaus Simon as performed by ensemble midi. The accordion is played by Franka Herwig.

 

One reviewer notes how the accordion “allows for more dynamic freedom and substitutes associations with chilly churches for those of more bourgeois café life.” I loved  the way Franka Herwig, the accordioni st in this performance, blended so extraordinarily well with the orchestra. Clearly there was a kind of texture that the accordion provided, but it was a smooth texture. I especially liked how the accordion fills out the sound so modestly at the opening of the fourth movement.

 

For reference, I listened to a live recording of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik.

Here is the opening of the fourth movement as played by a full orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra or, as they are known in German, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

 

It confirmed to my ears two things:

1. This reduction was handled really well. It is beautifully done. The mini-Mahler is simply the inverse of the exponential pathos of all those strings.

2. The playing of ensemble mini is extraordinary. I don’t know how they sustained such a high level of intensity over such a long period of time in those concerts. It is remarkable playing.

I did miss the large orchestra a couple of brief moments, in the first and third movements. There is a moment toward the end of the first movement that is shattering. The trombones are like death banging down the door. They are positively menacing.

Here is a moment toward the end of the first movement as played by Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

 

In the smaller arrangement you get the effect without the affect.

Here is the same moment toward the end of the first movement as played by ensemble mini.

 

Toward the end of the third movement there is a moment that is  frenetic, sarcastic, and maniacal.

Here is a moment toward the end of the third movement as played by Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

 

The Simon arrangement loses just a little something of the taunting quality.

Here is the same moment toward the end of the first movement as played by ensemble mini.

 

Obviously we’re not comparing apples to apples, so these kind of comparisons aren’t quite fair. What is remarkable, however, is the fact that for me these were the only times I was missing the larger orchestra.

Most of the time you are thinking about choices the conductors made, not how one version is superior to another, for example, the opening of the third movement.

The start of the second movement as played by Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Rafael Kubelik conducting.

 

 

I love what Kubelik does with the woodwinds. I don’t know if it’s meant to sound rustic or sarcastic, but it’s a glorious effect.

The start of the second movement as played by ensemble mini.

 

Obviously, ensemble mini takes a slower tempo. This is one of the slowest starts to the second movement I can remember, but the movement holds together really well. Mahler does some interesting things with tempo in this movement so that when a melody played at one tempo at the beginning is played at another tempo later on, it sounds ridiculous. Starting this movement a little slower made good sense for this arrangement.

The bottom line: Mahler’s music continues to inspire. A 100-year-old practice can still be relevant. With a recording, I can play music here in Portland that was created half a world away in Berlin.

 

 

List of recordings

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 5
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen

available on iTunes here

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN/arr. Franz Liszt
Symphony No. 5
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)

available at Amazon here

 

MODEST MUSSORGSKY
Pictures at an Exhibition
Evgeny Kissin (piano)

available from Amazon here

 

MODEST MUSSORGSKY
Pictures at an Exhibition
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini

available from Amazon here

 

JOHANN STRAUSS II
The Blue Danube Waltz
Duo Crommelynck

Available from iTunes here.

 

JOHANN STRAUSS II
The Blue Danube Waltz
I Salonisti

Available from iTunes here.

 

JOHANN STRAUSS II
The Blue Danube Waltz
Wiener Philharmoniker
Willi Boskovsky

available from Amazon here

 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537
Marie-Claire Alain

Available from iTunes here.

 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH/arr. Sir Edward Elgar

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

available from Amazon here

 

GUSTAV MAHLER
“Urlicht”
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Julius Drake (piano)

available from Amazon here

 

  • American Symphonic Organ

GUSTAV MAHLER
“Urlicht”
Stacey Rishoi (mezzo-soprano)
Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ)

available from Amazon here

 

  • Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor - Resurrection

GUSTAV MAHLER
“Urlicht”
Stacey Rishoi (mezzo-soprano)
Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ)

available from Amazon here

 

 

  • Mahler: Symphony No. 5 ~ Rattle

 

GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 5
Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

available from Amazon here

 

GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 5
David Briggs (organ)

available from Amazon here

 

GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 9/arr. by Klaus Simon
ensemble mini
joolz gale

available from Amazon here

 

 

  • Symphony 9

GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 9
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Rafael Kubelik

available from Amazon here

One comment

[…] arrangement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony as performed by Joolz Gale and ensemble mini. (See post here.) I’ve noticed that when I listen to a recording of a piece of classical music for the first […]

by For comparison: Mahler 9 Chamber Version | Camerata RCO | Gustavo Gimeno « glennaustin.com on 5 May 2015 at 5:19 am. #