courtesy of Naxos of America
Readers may recall that last month concluded with a release party hosted jointly by the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) and LIEDER ALIVE! The object of the celebration was ASQ’s latest CD on Foghorn Classics, entitled In meinem Himmel: The Mahler Song Cycles. The release date has now been set for this coming Friday; and, as usual, Amazon.com is taken pre-orders.
The joint festivities brought all four ASQ players, violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, together with mezzo Kindra Scharich, who performs regularly at LIEDER ALIVE! recitals. As the album title suggests, the CD presents the three song cycles representative of Gustav Mahler’s efforts as a mature composer, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer), which Mahler set to his own texts, and two settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) and the five songs for voice and orchestra or piano known simply as the Rückert-Lieder. None of these originally provided string quartet accompaniment for the vocalist. Instead, on this recording ASQ plays transcriptions of the original scores by Grafilo.
We know from the historical record that Mahler’s interests as a composer primarily addressed orchestral resources (usually very large ones). However, we also know that chamber music arrangements of his music were prepared for Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musicalische Privataufführungen). However, that organization was founded in 1918, about seven years after Mahler’s death. Nevertheless, Mahler’s widow Alma attended those “private musical performances” regularly, suggesting that she was not put off by listening to her late husband’s music played by chamber resources.
However, those resources did not confine themselves to the limitations of a string quartet. Instead, the arrangers tended to work with collections of instruments that would honor the sonorities that Mahler had in mind. On the other hand, while Grafilo did an impressive job in making sure that “the notes that mattered” were always taken into account, he could not do the same for the sonorities that mattered.
That distinction is most evident in the setting of “Um Mitternacht” from the Rückert-Lieder collection. It is worth bearing in mind that all five of these songs can hold up very well when performed by a chamber orchestra, and I was fortunate enough to listen to them performed this way back when I was regularly going to concerts at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Nevertheless, “Um Mitternacht” demands far more than what one would expect from a chamber orchestra, including a contrabassoon and a full brass section. However, the real kicker in instrumentation comes from a harp glissando that punctuates the primary climax of the setting; and there is no way in which the sonorous connotations of that moment can be captured by a string quartet.
On the other hand, there is much to be said for an accompaniment that does not oblige the vocalist to struggle to be heard. The texts that Mahler set are consistently introspective. As a result, they fare best when they are delivered through a rhetoric of understatement. That rhetoric runs the risk of being overwhelmed by full orchestral resources. However, no such competition is provided by Grafilo’s arrangements; and Scharich is consistently impressive in the rhetorical sensitivity she brings to her interpretations. In the long run this is likely to matter more than whether some of the composer’s critical “sound effects” had to be sacrificed in the interest of making sure that the resources at hand would still do justice to how the music is interpreted.