This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Schoenberg’s reductions of Mahler’s two great orchestral song cycles; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde, were made for his “Society for Private Musical Performance” which flourished briefly in post WW1 Vienna. Essentially the orchestral score is reduced to one instrument per part with a few other minor changes. The results are intriguing. Unquestionably some of the grandeur of Mahler’s massive orchestration is lost. This is especially noticeable in Das Lied von der Erde. On the other hand the instrumental textures are greatly clarified and there is much less sense of the singers straining to make themselves heard against a large orchestra. There are still fifteen instrumentalists so the singers are pushed well beyond lieder singing but it does allow for a somewhat more nuanced approach to the text.
The Naxos recording features the Attacca Quartet supplemented by the Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players under the direction of JoAnn Falletta. The soloist in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is British Mozart baritone Roderick Williams. He has a clear, clean, rather British sound that suits the music and matches well with the clarity of the ensemble playing. This is a very enjoyable way to hear this work. For the larger work the band is joined by tenor Charles Reid and mezzo-soprano Susan Platts. Things do get a bit more operatic here. Even with the reduced scoring, numbers like Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde and the great Abschied are pretty dense and the singers are working hard to be clearly audible. Both are good. Reid’s medium weight voice works well in this context and Platts manages some of the richness one hopes for in the mezzo parts. Falletta does a good job of keeping things clear with very little muddiness.
The recording was made in the relatively intimate Robin Hixon Theatre, home of the Virginia Arts Festival. It’s very detailed and clear with just enough resonance to avoid coldness.