MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (arr. by Schoenberg/ Riehn) – Robert Breault, tenor/ Richard Zeller, bar./ Martingale Ensemble/ Ken Selden – MSR Classics MS 1406, 64:58 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

I have to admit that I originally was going to give this three and one-half stars, but then decided that would be grossly unfair. Why? Because I simply don’t see the need for these types of arrangements and recordings. Even though in 1920 when Schoenberg started this arrangement of Das Lied for his two-year old Society for Private Musical Performances one could argue that his efforts were slightly anachronistic. But his motives were pure, and we can certainly understand his reasoning behind wanting to give this large scale work a hearing when some organizations were understandably hesitant to go to the expense of presenting music that most likely would not be welcomed by the public at large.

That was then, and this is now, and no one needs an introduction to masterpieces like Das Lied von der Erde in a chamber music guise. And when you realize that bankruptcy caused the Society to disband, leaving Schoenberg’s arrangement for string quintet, wind quintet, piano, celeste, harmonium, and percussion in stasis, only to be completed in 1983 by Rainer Riehn The reason for this is, at the very least, questionable. Though the notes rightly admit that Mahler’s song symphony is a conglomeration of discreet and excellent chamber-style orchestrations, the notion that “Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble version emphasizes these characteristics with additional clarity, which allows the details and subtleties of Mahler’s writing to become transparent to the listener” is rather silly. This is the most chamber-like of anything large-scale that Mahler ever wrote, and everything he intended for us to hear in this work we do hear; there is nothing in this piece that is revealed with greater clarity than that which is found in the original format.

Having said that, and turning to the performance itself, I find it to be quite sympathetic with true Mahlerian style, and utterly convincing in its dramatic thrust. Breault and Zeller are both accomplished musicians that, while not ranking with the greatest paired exponents of this music, are fully capable of pulling it off in fine fashion, while the Martingale Ensemble, whose music of Mahler and Debussy I reviewed here turns in an outstanding performance, recorded in excellent sound. This is not my cup of tea, and I view it as anachronistic, but many don’t and will enjoy these excellent readings.

—Steven Ritter