Classical CD Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G (chamber arr. by Erwin Stein)/ DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – Deanna Breiwick, sop./ Martingale Ens./ Ken Selden – MSR Classics

You might like this, or you might not—it depends on your sense of the truthfulness of history and the way some things were once done.

Published on August 9, 2013

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G (chamber arr. by Erwin Stein)/ DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (chamber arr. by Benno Sachs) – Deanna Breiwick, sop./ Martingale Ens./ Ken Selden – MSR Classics MS 1373, 63:35 [Distr. by Albany] ***½:

Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done. In this case I refer to the works on this disc in chamber ensemble arrangement, for flute, oboe, clarinet, harmonium, piano, percussion, string quartet and double bass. Will hearing the pieces in this form add anything to your understanding of these works? No. Are they as emotionally involving as the originals? Yes and no. These performances in and of themselves are well done, finely interpreted, and completely within a standard circle of current understanding—nothing weird or overdone here. But I have never been of the opinion that reduced forces somehow add to our understanding of a work, either from a structural standpoint or from a density factor when it comes to orchestration. Especially with these two composers, masters each at working the expressive elements of an orchestra, nothing is added by subtracting from their final decisions on any matter of color, and therefore, dynamics as well, perhaps an even more important element. While we might be able to argue that the full orchestra moments of the Fourth Symphony are not as important in the overall scheme of things than in some of Mahler’s denser, less “chamber” music—this one, after all, revolves in each movement more or less around one song from the Wunderhorn collection, The Heavenly Life—when you get to the said passage on this recording you will indeed be let down to a certain extent.

Of course these arrangements were never intended as idealized readings. Arnold Schoenberg, as many already know, set up a series of subscription concerts (sans critics) called the Society for Private Musical Performance in order to promote new music from Mahler and Strauss onward. Many famous or soon-to-be-famous composers were represented at these concerts, and it was not uncommon, as here, to reduced larger scores to smaller ones for the explicit purpose of tantalizing the audience with things to come in the guise of playable—and affordable—readings. Today, with the plethora of recordings and performances of each of these pieces we have no need for such endeavors, and so this sort of recording appeals mainly to those with an historical penchant as it applies to classical music, of exploring the way that some people at least first heard this music. If this is important to you, or you are curious, you will find these completely satisfying in terms of interpretation, but it won’t be the last word by any means. Those who are newbies to this music should stop reading now and ignore this issue, heading directly for one of the many, many fine recordings of the full, real versions of these pieces. But if you stick around, and understand the premise, the playing is excellent, the sound just right, and the singing of soprano Deanna Breiwick highly evocative and among the best of those women who have tackled this music.

—Steven Ritter

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