Sunday 16 March 2014

The new Kaplan/Mathes arrangement for small orchestra of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony provides a surprising body of sound on a new release from Avie with Gilbert Kaplan conducting the Wiener Kammerorchester

In some ways the thought of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ arranged for small orchestra does not sound very appealing. Yet all is not as simple as first seems.

As is shown on a new recording of Gilbert Kaplan and Rob Mathes’ arrangement for small orchestra of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in C minor Resurrection on a new recording from Avie Records , with the Wiener Kammerorchester , Wiener Singakademie conducted by Gilbert Kaplan with Marlis Peterson (soprano)  and Janina Baechle (mezzo) , a small orchestra can mean many things. 

But first things first. Why the need to make the arrangement in the first place? An initiative of the Kaplan Foundation, one of the leading institutions in Mahler research, this new arrangement has been made in order to provide an opportunity for chamber orchestras, small community orchestras and regional opera orchestras to perform this work.

2 CD

So far as orchestra size is concerned, this new arrangement is for a total of 56 players. Of these there are eight woodwind, nine brass, one each of harp and timpani, two percussion and organ. The string sections are intended to be proportionate but on this recording total 34.

Mahler originally had seventeen woodwind, twenty five brass, two harps, two timpanists, three percussionists and organ giving a total of 50. With a proportionate number of string players this would have made an orchestra of well over 100 players.

Yet still this doesn’t reveal the complete picture. Some of the horns and trumpets are used offstage and there is doubling on certain instruments. There are other issues such as the fact that, although Mahler calls for six horns within the orchestra (excluding the offstage horns) he usually writes no more than three different notes at any one time.

Finally, in the interesting instrumentation chart printed in the CD booklet, comparisons are not only made with the original instrumentation and the new Kaplan/Mathes arrangement but also with that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Brahms’ First Symphony. Though hardly comparative works, this does give an insight into the size of orchestra producing the kind of sounds that were produced some eighteen years and eighty six years before.

One final point that is interesting is that, when composing the first movement of the second symphony, he called for an orchestra not very much larger than this new arrangement. It seems that his ideas embraced much larger forces as composition on the new work progressed. What is shown is that this is still a substantial orchestra.

Gilbert Kaplan is, of course, well known as a Mahler specialist, having twice recorded Mahler’s Second Symphony, first with the London Symphony Orchestra (IMP Classics/Conifer Records) and then with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon).

The Allegro maestoso is placed alone on the first disc thus encouraging listeners to take Mahler’s advice that one should have an interval of at least five minutes before the second movement. The strings have a lightness of texture, yet the basses still have plenty of power. This transparency certainly allows Mahler’s distinctive woodwind to sound through. Kaplan knows just how to steadily build the tension and drama from the very opening. The little drooping string phrases are subtle and effective. There isn’t the sheer weight of sound as the movement develops but it is far from insipid. The music gains in some of the exquisitely beautiful pastoral interludes. The sound of shimmering strings, about halfway through the movement, sounds spectacularly good. In the original version, the individual musical lines can be easily heard such is Mahler’s fine orchestration yet in this version the ear is drawn far more to little details. The climax of the movement receives all due weight and power, never sounding weak. There is a chamber like intimacy at times, something Mahler did so well for all his size of orchestra, dropping from full orchestral strength to a small ensemble proving that his music was not about bombast and decibels for their own sake. Kaplan and the Wiener Kammerorchester give us a finely paced, glorious, glowing coda.

The lightness of touch pays dividends in the Andante moderato yet there is still an underlying richness of sound – after all this isn’t a tiny orchestra. The reduced timpani still sounds dramatic with the smaller forces as this movement builds in strength. What a delightful pizzicato string section there is, punctuated by woodwind and harp. The Wiener Kammerorchester certainly has a fine woodwind section with beautifully turned phrases.

In ruhig fließender Berwegung brings lovely flexibility of string sound. Percussion are nicely balanced and there are many delights as the woodwind weave around the strings. This is such lithe and animated playing. There is such an intimate sound before the music rises to a short, powerful climax. The strings, all thirty four of them, provide a surprising amount of body with lovely light and shade. The surging sway of this movement is fully met. Surely no one will be disappointed with the main climax when it arrives, full of weight and power, not overpowering but ample. A tam-tam leads to a lovely conclusion.

When mezzo Janina Baechle enters at the beginning of ‘Urlicht’ (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) she sets just the right feel for the brass chorale that follows. She has a finely controlled voice, with an oboe wonderfully weaving around her. Again Mahler’s intimate, chamber like, pastoral feel is so suitable to this version. Baechle produces some exquisite notes in her upper register, often the best part of her range.

The great outburst at the beginning of Im Tempo des Scherzos does perhaps lose a little of the body of sound from the reduced strings but does not sound in any way undernourished. As the music falls away, the transparency of sound serves as compensation. The off stage brass sound quite as effective as usual. The Dies Irae theme for pizzicato strings is glorious as is the wonderful restraint of the strings shortly after. The re-appearance of the offstage horns and trumpet is terrific. When the great brass chorale rises up, the brass section are truly magnificent and quite thrilling. The whole orchestra, when they come together are a stunning experience making one wonder if this can really be just 56 players. The litheness and buoyancy of the orchestra really push the music with a swagger.

Just occasionally, when the strings alone play, with just support from percussion and brass I wished for more string power.  Before the Wiener Singakademie choir enter there is a moment of intense expectation. When they join, they are absolutely superb, quite a highlight of this disc. When soprano Marlis Peterson rises out of the choir, Kaplan keeps an amazing sense of drama and restraint. The Wiener Singakademie is rich and warm and so beautifully blended. When mezzo, Janina Baechle, enters on the words ‘O glaube, mein Herz! O galube’, I detected a slight intonation problem but this is only momentary. As the drama builds, the choir and orchestra are surprisingly powerful and when the organ enters the thrill is no less than in Mahler’s original. Kaplan’s control here is superb before orchestra with percussion, tubular bells and organ lead to a fine conclusion.

This can never be the only recording to have on one’s shelf. It is, after all, not what Mahler wrote. Nevertheless, I would not want to be without it. Mahler himself wasn’t adverse to ‘re-touching’ the works of others such as Beethoven’s symphonies. He made string orchestra arrangements of quartets by Schubert and Beethoven. He even went as far as saying, in relation to his own eighth symphony, 'if, after my death, something doesn't sound right, then change it. You have not only a right but a duty to do so.’ Whilst that doesn’t apply in this case, his own original is without peer, it does leave the door open to such an arrangement as this.

How much the engineers have helped the weight of sound is difficult to tell. They certainly have done a very fine job. There are excellent booklet notes with German texts and English translations.

Most importantly of all, this new version will allow performances by orchestras that would never be able to muster the forces needed in the original. Gilbert Kaplan and Rob Mathes have done a fine job. 

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