Concert Review – Mahler Symphony No.4 (chamber orchestra ed. K. Simon) – Orchestra of the Music Makers

Mahler Symphony No. 4, arr Klaus Simon

Mahler: Lob Des Hohen Verstandes” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, arr Jinjun Lee
Strauss: Morgen

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Seow Yibin, conductor

2 May 2021, 4pm.
Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Derek Lim

It’s nearly impossible to speak of classical music performances today without the spectre of Covid-19 looming – there hasn’t been a full-sized (read: late Romantic) orchestral performance since the pandemic went into full swing. A few valiant attempts have been made on the return to normalcy, the latest of which was this series of three performances by the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) of Klaus Simon’s reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

A few years ago, this version wouldn’t have stood a chance of being performed – why attempt a chamber version when there is no shortage of orchestral musicians in Singapore?

Turns out that a reduction may just have been what the doctor ordered for these socially distanced times. 23 musicians – 7 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 1 double bass, 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 1 horn, 2 percussionists, 1 accordion and 1 piano – served as substitute for Mahler’s full orchestra (Simon specifies a maximum of 20 strings in total). In preparation, I listened to Simon’s own recording of the reduction with the MythenEnsembleOrchestral and was delighted by what he was able to achieve in his “chamber orchestra” version (you can peruse the edition here and listen to it yourself here.)

Seow Yibin

Could OMM and conductor Seow Yibin pull it off and make us not miss the original in this, the 110th anniversary of Mahler’s death?

The edition posed its own challenges. Although it may have worked in the studio, in performance it proved problematic. With far fewer players in the string chorus, and without the benefit of a recording sound engineer to tweak the balance, issues of balance arose, with some of the solo winds dominating the sound stage. Arranged for only a fifth of the players in a full orchestra, Simon’s arrangement places a large burden on the accordionist and pianist to fill in the textures. Although the accordionist was placed quite up front, and was generally quite well-heard in the opening bars, the instrument was conspicuously missing in many of the other passages, leaving textures relatively sparse.

Although Mahler wrote for huge orchestras, he knew how to create intimate textures by orchestrating sparingly. Klaus Simon preserved much of the character of these passages, and OMM fared best here, but the tutti passages were less effective because of the reduced ensemble. Mahler’s full orchestra delineates the architecture of the music and its musical argument through dynamic scale and contrast; without the fortissimo passages, the more intimate passages lost much of their meaning.

Given the expressive limitations of the edition, OMM, led by concertmaster Zhao Tian, proved themselves the equal of the music’s substantial technical difficulties. It was clear that they were trying their best to live up to the original vision of the music. In some places, for example, the musicians really dug into the strings, but there’s only so much volume that so few instruments can produce, even if the score exhorts ‘Ton!’ The winds were right at home leaning into the soloistic nature of the material Mahler provides, with great results all around, especially from the French horn soloist, Bryan Chong, who was in impeccable form.

With generally fleet tempi in the sleigh-bell first movement, Seow emphasized the neo-Classical aspects of the music, allowing some old-school schmaltzy glissandi within a straightforward interpretation. With fewer instruments, orchestral colour combinations – especially with usually brilliant brass absent – pushed scrutiny toward the musical argument. While generally effective, Seow had trouble building and sustaining the mounting tension in the development of the first movement section, beginning with the flute whistling without a care in the world in its highest registers. This had the effect of undermining the phantasmagoric, blood-chilling effect when the trumpet ‘kleine Appell’ tattoo  (which Simon gives to the clarinet) enters – a successful performance pulls the rug from under the listener, dispelling the movement’s deceptive child-like innocence completely.

The Scherzo, with Zhao Tian playing a scordatura (differently-tuned) violin to depict Freund Hein, was straightforwardly handled – in the soaring section there could certainly have been more fantasy. In the Adagio, the best played movement, there were some interesting interpretative decisions which may have worked better with the full orchestra version. For example, there were rhetorical pauses between the original pizzicato passages (here written for piano), in the Adagio before the oboe solo. This may have worked in the original, but here the silence felt stark and too long when not underpinned by longer notes. In the same movement, the huge Luftpaus taken before the climax seemed, as a gesture, too grand and less suited to the chamber format.

Teng Xiang Ting

There were promising moments of transcendent beauty – many of which were in the Adagio with its hushed, beautiful introduction with accordion – but these were, too, interspersed with passages bothered by balance issues, particularly when Mahler balances dynamics so that one group of instruments takes a phrase over from another. In the final movement, ‘Das himmlische Leben”, Teng Xiang Ting’s lyric soprano was radiant and sympathetically characterized. Here, she sang almost 10 metres away from the conductor – a restriction of safe-distanced music-making that unfortunately affected her syncing with the orchestra with regard to the timing of breaths taken and entries. Her downward slide at ‘Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht’ was at once old-fashioned, idiomatic and lovely, and the orchestra’s final bell-like passages as peaceful and Zen as could be wished for.

The concert ended with a lovely pick-me-up – Mahler’s Wunderhorn song ‘Lob’ des hohen Verstandes’, with Teng acting as the Cuckoo, Nightingale and Donkey, inciting smiles from the audience. The concert ended with Richard Strauss’ ‘Morgen’, which was full of the aching beauty, longing and repose that we so need in these troubled times.

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