Think about how often Mahler himself resorts to chamber music textures in his...
Andrew McGregor 2004
So how does Mahler 4 sound when you've fired about 80% of the orchestra?! The answer appears to be: not nearly as awful as you might expect. Here's the story so far.
At the end of the First World War, Arnold Schönberg established his Society for Private Musical Performances, to give his Viennese subscribers the chance to hear modern music performed as well as possible, with just one proviso: that the Society's resources had limits, and that only chamber orchestra performances could be supported, no matter how big the original work. So when Erwin Stein arranged Mahler's Fourth Symphony for the Society in 1921 he managed to reduce the forces to soprano and twelve players.
Ulp. I honestly thought I'd last about five minutes before I went to look for a decent recording of the real thing, but I stayed the course and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. For a start, think about how often Mahler himself resorts to chamber music textures in his symphonies. The sounds seem utterly natural most of the time. Wind textures aren't quite as thin as you'd expect, thanks to the wheezing of a harmonium, plus the piano helps thicken the textures, and the two percussionists also keep the colour and contrast intact.
True, at the climactic moments there's no getting away from the fact that a string quintet can't possibly compensate for the massed sections of the Berlin Philharmonic, but a delighted smile at Stein's ingenuity is far more likely than a groan of disappointment. Of course, none of this would matter if the playing wasn't up to scratch, but the Smithsonian Chamber Players with their matched Amati's make a splendid sound alongside the Santa Fe Pro Musica members. Soprano Christina Brandes doesn't sound at all put out not to have the full symphony orchestra surging away beneath her in the finale.
The four Wayfarer Songs that accompany the symphony are transcribed by Schönberg himself, with mezzo Susan Platts obviously enjoying the intimacy of the arrangements. Kenneth Slowik's direction is surefooted and idiomatic, and the recording is a treat: well natural and detailed, so you don't miss a note, and the essays in the booklet are fascinating.
But why would anyone buy this in preference to the Mahler originals? Well, you wouldn't, obviously, but there should be room for this alongside a fine performance of the full Fourth Symphony. I certainly learned things about the music I hadn't understood before, so perhaps stripping away the luxurious finish allows you to appreciate fully the beauty of what's underneath.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3