Mahler’s Fourth Downsized for SSO Chamber Series

SingaporeSingapore Mahler: Rao Lan, soprano, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Yu Long, conductor, School of the Arts Concert Hall, Singapore, 28.3.2014 (RP)

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major (Chamber version by Erwin Stein)

Sixteen members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SS0), under the direction of Chinese conductor Yu Long, presented a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as part of the SSO Chamber Series. The Fourth calls for more modest forces than do Mahler’s other orchestral works, but that just means no trombones and tubas, a few less flutes and only a handful of percussion instruments. Sure, there are compromises to be had in performing a Mahler symphony with a chamber orchestra, but there are also advantages. What is lost in terms of the splendor of a full orchestra is compensated for in terms of clarity, transparency and intimacy.

This chamber version has an interesting history. Arnold Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna so that he and others in his circle could enjoy music without the interruptions inherent in public performances and away from the critics. Erwin Stein, one of his students, was asked to transcribe Mahler’s Fourth for chamber orchestra. It was performed in 1921, but lost during World War II after Stein fled Austria to London to escape Nazi persecution. Alexander Platt, the US conductor, used a copy of the original score annotated by Stein to make this reduction in 1993.

The School of the Arts Concert Hall is an attractive space constructed of wood and concrete and seats about 650 people. Assisted by the hall’s excellent acoustics, the SSO forces played beautifully. The sixteen instrumentalists functioned as a finely coordinated chamber ensemble, but captured the spirit of a much larger orchestra. Two of its members deserve special mention. Clarinetist Ma Yue’s jaunty playing of the Ländler melodies in the second movement transported one to the Austrian Alps. (Of course, the bone-chilling air conditioning in the theater did its bit too.) Ma played with style and panache throughout and makes a lovely sound. His playing as much as anything brought buoyancy to the entire performance. Cellist Ng Pei-Sian shone throughout, but he was the star of the third movement. A joy for the ear and the eye, Ng makes his cello sing.

Chinese soprano Rao Lan entered the stage gracefully, capturing visually the childlike simplicity that Mahler calls for in the fourth movement. The opening strophe of Das himmlische Leben was marred by a fast vibrato in her upper range, but that eased up as she settled into the music. Rao has good German, albeit there were a few questionable vowel sounds. The acoustics that worked so well for the orchestra did not help her. It was often hard to hear her when she was singing in the middle and lower parts of her range.

Yu Long is one busy man. He is currently artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival and the China Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of both the Shanghai and Guangzhou orchestras, in addition to other international engagements. Part of Mahler’s greatness lies in the transcendent, other world quality he creates, such as in the song Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen or the final Ewig… ewig… in Das Lied von der Erde>. This Fourth had such moments that led the audience “from the present to the hereafter,” just as Mahler intended.

Rick Perdian

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