Friday, July 15, 2005

Magnificent Mahler-lite from Manchester

Orchestra controlled labels recording ‘risk averse’ subscription concerts are not the only way to keep classical recording alive in today’s tough market. There are still some great independent labels who understand that fundamental law of economics - profit is the return for risk. These labels are taking risks with innovative repertoire, and in the process they are making outstanding recordings.

A new CD that has spent a lot of time in my player recently is the Manchester Camerata's recording of Erwin Stein's arrangement for chamber ensemble of Mahler's 4th Symphony. This performance is much more than a curiosity, it is a really useful study aid. Reductions and arrangements of orchestral works are a wonderful educational tool. They separate the individual strands within the music, and help the listener get much closer to the composer without resorting to a score.

The arrangement was made for Arnold Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances in 1921. Stein was an early composition pupil of Schoenberg, and was an authority on Mahler. Subsequently the original parts were lost, and the Britten Estate commissioned a reconstruction from Alexander Platt in 1990. This was made from Stein's annotated copy of the full score in the Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles. So what we actually have is a reconstruction, of an arrangement, of an original symphony...

The Manchester Camerata is expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd, and the excellent soprano is rising star Kate Royal. Nothing is lost in the reduction in forces, in fact the last movement with soprano benefits from the increased intimacy of the chamber scoring. The recording is on the innovative Avie label (who also brought us the arrangement for viols of the Byrd Mass that I recently praised), and was made at a concert in the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in November last year. This is a first class performance with demonstration quality sound. Engineering is by the respected producer Andrew Keener who produces a sound that manages to be both full bodied (real bass at the climaxes despite the small forces) and intimate.

The most excellent news is that this outstanding new release is at super-budget price, I paid just £5 ($9) in the UK. I assume the low pricing is to act as a spoiler for the well reviewed Linos Ensemble version of this arrangement recently released on Capriccio. (but the Linos Ensemble recording does contain a valuable bonus in the form of Schoenberg's arrangement of the Songs of a Wayfarer). The live recording on Avie does not compromise performance or sound, and certainly doesn't mandate the very low price.

The only real compromise is the inadequate sleeve note which gives no detail of the fifteen instrument arrangement (the cover photos are going to mislead many buyers, they show a full strength Manchester Camerata of near symphonic proportions). The original Stein arrangement was for the following forces: flute, oboe and English horn, clarinet, three violins, viola, cello, double bass, two percussionist, two pianos, and harmonium. In the absence of other information I assume the Platt reconstruction used on the Manchester Camerata recording retains Stein's original scoring.

Overall an excellent new release which gives a valuable and fresh insight into a symphonic masterpiece. Recommended at any cost, impossible to refuse at this price.

Footnote - the Manchester Camerata under Douglas Boyd make their BBC Proms debut in a late night concert on Wednesday 27th July playing Beethoven Symphony No 8 and Tippett's Divertimento on Sellinger's Round. It will be webcast by BBC Radio 3, links available in my weekly Proms preview.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One note, FYI: the pricing of the Manchester Camerata's Mahler 4 is a strategic decision for their planned series with us (the Mahler is their second release on Avie, following Beethoven's Symphonies 2 and 5 - AV 0040). The budget pricing is marketing tool with the goal of getting the orchestra's CDs into more hands than they might at full price, which in turn gets their name out to a wider audience and on the evidence of the sales it appears to be paying off - a true case of the CD as calling card. So we may well be going head to head with Capriccio, but their pricing wasn't out motivation!

Many thanks for your support of Avie

Avie Records