Arrangements abound ... sometimes to update to an era, such as Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, or to bring music greater prominence, Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies come to mind – one performer needed as opposed to an orchestra – and similar thinking informed Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen) which he formed in 1918 to enable the regular introduction to audiences of new music in reduced versions made either by himself or his associates; otherwise those keen to know the latest had to track-down a rare full-sized performance, or needed to purchase and read the original version, or hope for an arrangement to tackle at home (Zemlinsky was busy transcribing Mahler Symphonies), when people were more likely to have a piano at home. Today, by contrast, music is accessible like never before – recordings, broadcasts, websites, downloads, YouTube ... you name it.
So do we need Schoenberg’s arrangements of Mahler, made for practical and philanthropic reasons and now outweighed with the ease that one can listen to the originals? I think so, because much skill and sensitivity went into what Schoenberg did – the instruments used as listed – and sometimes these leaner versions shed light on the music itself, not least harmonically, and they make the scores continually available for performance by smaller groups.
And in any case how can anyone resist Roderick Williams in Songs of a Wayfarer. He is in superb vocal and narrative form, and Schoenberg’s expressionist revision is illuminating, and all the music is here, redressed but remaining colourful, instruments fluttering and tinkling, poetic and soulful, underpinned by the velvety timbre of a harmonium. Williams’s word-painting is exemplary, so too his vocal mellifluousness and depth of feeling.
Vocally, I am less taken with the soloists in Song of the Earth. In the first (drinking) song, Charles Reid is on the strident side, as if singing against Mahler’s large and loud orchestra, and at his dynamic peak an intrusive beat to his voice is discerned. With so few musicians behind him, he has no need to compete. He does though sing with sentiment and shapely phrasing, and if one misses the full resources of Mahler’s orchestration, Schoenberg’s skills are manifest, so too the playing of the ensemble, impressively so given the writing is currently so exposed. Reid is somewhat more agreeable in his remaining songs, although pianissimo is at a premium.
Susan Platts is similarly close to the listener and also exudes obtrusive vibrato, a syrupy layering-on that becomes wearing early into her first appearance, and it is her who has the expansive final setting, ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell), before which ‘Von der Schönheit’ contrasts the titular beauty with its familiar beast, the latter being galloping horses, if less disruptive than they can be.
Throughout both works, vividly recorded in a single day following a concert, the instrumentalists play quite superbly, and for the most part JoAnn Falletta paces things admirably and shows the keenest concern for the music post-Mahler, not least in ‘The Farewell’, which certainly has its share of haunting exquisiteness but the continuation of so much that is edgy does become disconcerting, as does further exposure to Platts’s pulses, if, it must be said, more restrained here and which some may well find more expressive than I do; there is no reason to doubt her identification with the words and music. In Wayfarer, Williams is afforded just as much exposure in the balance, but it matters less with him.
An interesting and generous release, then, but one that carries reservations. Texts and translations are included in the booklet.