A Most Thoughtfully Designed Programme, Expertly Delivered by the Orchestra of the Swan and Kenneth Woods

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, David Matthews, Schubert arr. Woods, Mahler arr. Simon: April Fredrick (soprano), Orchestra of the Swan / Kenneth Woods (conductor), The Play House, Stratford-upon-Avon, 28.5.2019 (JQ)

Kenneth Woods (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Mozart – Divertimento in B flat K137

David MatthewsLe Lac Op 146 (2018) (First performance)

Schubert arr. Kenneth Woods – ‘Death and the Maiden’. Variations and Lied for Soprano
and Chamber Orchestra

Mahler – arr. Klaus Simon – Symphony No.4 in G major

You know the old saying to the effect that you wait a long time for a bus and then two or more come along together. In my case, I’ve heard a lot of orchestral music by David Matthews on CD but until last Saturday I had never experienced a note of his output live in concert. Then I attended the first performance of his Concerto for Orchestra (review) and tonight, just four days later, I heard the first performance of his recent piece for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra Le Lac. The work was commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan in 2016, specifically for April Fredrick and its premiere tonight formed part of a very interesting programme compiled by Kenneth Woods, who was the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor from 2010 to 2013.

The concert opened with one of Mozart’s Divertimenti. This one, for strings and probably written during the 1770s, is in three short movements, Andante – Allegro di molto – Allegro assai. The opening slow movement was elegantly played and the two that followed were given dapper performances but, frankly, this work merely served as a musical amuse-bouche.

Far greater substance was provided by David Matthews’ new work. This is scored for soprano accompanied by an orchestra consisting of single woodwind, two horns, trumpet, harp and strings. By my watch, it played for about 18 minutes. The text that Matthews chose to set is Le Lac, a French Romantic poem written by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869).  In a programme note the composer explained that the poem was inspired by de Lamartine’s love for a married woman, Julie Charles. The couple had spent time together at Lac du Bourget in the Jura Mountains in 1816 and planned another tryst there in August 1817, but Julie was too ill with tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter. The poem which de Lamartine subsequently wrote is a sixteen-stanza recollection of their 1816 meeting at the lake, when thy rowed out onto the lake in a boat.

Unfortunately, two factors influenced my appreciation of the work at a first hearing. The poem is set in French and though the text was not printed in the programme we were supplied with what was described as a “rather loose” English translation. Sadly, the very unhelpful decision to dim all the house lights meant that the translation was of no use; even though I’d read through it before the start of the concert, the poem was far too long to take in at a single reading. Also, I’m afraid the acoustic of The Play House rather worked against the music. The hall is an octagon with a wooden roof. This is probably fine for the spoken word, the building’s primary purpose, but the acoustic was too dry, and ‘present’ to accommodate comfortably even a moderately-sized orchestra in this music – I found that the other pieces on the programme were less affected; perhaps, in part, my ears had adjusted.

The acoustic meant that quite frequently the orchestra sounded too loud. Note that I said “sounded” rather than “was”: I don’t blame the conductor or players for this; the issue, I’m sure, was that the somewhat cramped acoustic meant that the orchestral sound had insufficient room in which to expand and decay naturally. How I wished I could have heard the work in the altogether more sympathetic acoustic of St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, where the Concerto for Orchestra had been played a few nights earlier. That said, there was still a great deal to admire in both music and performance. Matthews has given his soprano soloist a wonderful stream of melody – often sensual in nature – and April Fredrick seized the moment, singing with gorgeous tone. The music ranges over a wide vocal compass and Miss Fredrick’s gleaming top register was often heard to great advantage but also the lower-lying passages were beautifully produced.  I was struck by the singer’s complete engagement with the music. This was apparent even when she got a breather during the two or three fine orchestral interludes. Throughout the work’s duration you could see her thinking her way into the text and identifying with the poetic situation as part of bringing the text to life. The orchestral writing was consistently attractive; as with the vocal part, melody was front and centre in the orchestral contribution. I relished the woodwind writing and also the truly lovely string postlude with which the work ends. In brief spoken remarks before the concert, Kenneth Woods described Le Lac as ‘communicative and evocative’. I agree. He has recently released a fine CD of music by David Matthews (review). His expert conducting of this premiere gave further evidence of his empathy with this composer’s music. I liked Le Lac very much. It’s a fine, rich piece and I’m keen to hear it again in again in a more suitable acoustic or, dare one hope, through a  recording.

A work – or, rather, an arrangement – by Woods himself followed. This, he told us in a programme note, was one of several arrangements he has made to accompany concert performances of chamber arrangements of Mahler’s Fourth. For this one he took as his starting point Schubert’s song Der Tod und Das Mädchen D531. Schubert subsequently used music from the song as the basis of a set of variations which form the slow movement of his String Quartet in D minor, D810.  The scoring of Woods’ arrangement wasn’t specified in the programme but so far as I could see it consists of single woodwinds, horn, piano, harmonium, percussion (1 player, very sparingly used) and strings. Woods’ arrangement of the variations is very skilful. He opens with Schubert’s variation theme presented by a solo quartet of strings, then the scoring expands to include all the strings and eventually the rest of the players are involved for the variations themselves. These are pleasingly and sympathetically scored; as I listened, I felt that, with the exception of the keyboard instruments, the scoring sounded convincingly Schubertian yet not slavishly so; that would have invited pastiche. One little touch I noticed was that before the scoring eventually returned to the solo quartet with which we began, there was a brief use of a set of sleigh bells, an apposite nod to Mahler’s Fourth. The theme of Schubert’s variations is the D minor music he used for the words spoken by Death in the song: ‘Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!’ At the end of his piece, Kenneth Woods presents the song itself and the soprano is ushered in, very fittingly, by Schubert’s dark D minor chords, played on the harmonium. April Fredrick sang Schubert’s song with fine feeling. I thought the piece as a whole was a most effective Schubertian arrangement and Woods’ idea to bring the variations back to the song itself, the fons et origo, was very imaginative. The Orchestra of the Swan played the piece most persuasively under Woods’ guidance.

After the interval we heard Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in an arrangement for chamber orchestra made, I understand, in 2007 by Klaus Simon (b.1968). Again, I’m afraid the programme notes were a bit of a let-down, describing the symphony itself but telling us nothing about the arrangement we were to hear. In fact, as I discovered from the Universal Music website, this is but one of a whole host of chamber arrangements that Simon has made, including works by Berg and Schoenberg. His many Mahler arrangements include a goodly number of songs plus the First, Fifth Sixth and Ninth symphonies. His arrangement of the Fourth requires single wind (with some doubling), horn, percussion (2 players), harmonium, piano and strings. If I counted correctly, tonight we had 3 desks each of first and second violins, 2 desks each of violas and cellos and a pair of double basses.

Simon isn’t the first to arrange Mahler’s Fourth for smaller forces. The task was first undertaken by Erwin Stein in 1921. His version was undertaken for The Society for Private Musical Performance, a venture established in Vienna in 1919 by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern with the laudable aim of presenting modern works to music lovers in an age when today’s ready dissemination of music through broadcast media or recordings was impossible to conceive. Stein’s Mahler arrangement was one of a number of large-scale works that were arranged for modest forces simply to get them a hearing at Society concerts. I don’t know if there are any other arrangements of the Fourth besides those by Stein and Simon, but if there are then in terms of recordings the Stein is much the most prominent: I know of six recordings of it, one of which is a live 2009 performance by the Orchestra of the Swan, which I myself reviewed back in 2012. Simon’s scoring is slightly different to Stein’s.

I must confess that I am very ambivalent about reduced-forces arrangements of Mahler symphonies. I’ve never heard Simon’s arrangements of those other symphonies I mentioned and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to. There’s a case to be made that the Fourth, with its light, transparent sound-world, is the best candidate for such arrangements. I’m far from sure I see a need for multiple recordings of the arranged version but I can see a pragmatic case for performing a chamber version in concert. After all, it’s the only way that smaller venues such as the one used tonight are likely to hear a professional performance of the piece. That said, however skilled the arrangement – and Klaus Simon has certainly done a skilled job – there is so much missing in an arrangement. It might be simplistic to draw an analogy between a colour photograph (Mahler’s original score) and a black-and-white photograph (an arrangement) but, however crude, the analogy will serve.

One effect of an arrangement such as this is that for the players there is nowhere to hide: the scoring is extremely exposed. I should say at once that the members of the Orchestra of the Swan had no need to fear exposure. Throughout the performance their playing was assured and precise. This enabled the audience to experience one of the benefits that a chamber version can bring: an abundance of inner textural detail was audible. I think it helped enormously that Kenneth Woods was in charge of proceedings for he has strong Mahler credentials. He is Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest; indeed, he came to Stratford-upon-Avon hot foot from the 32nd MahlerFest, which took place earlier this month.  It seemed to me that throughout the performance Woods’ conducting evidenced great empathy with the music and understanding of Mahler style – the strings’ idiomatic use of portamento was a case in point. In the first movement particularly, there is an abundance of tricky corners and joins to negotiate. The difficulties of these should not be underestimated but all were negotiated with precision.

There was much to admire in the first movement. Many passages are bright and energetic and Woods ensured that the performance had all the necessary vitality. He was equally observant of the nostalgic/lyrical episodes too. The second movement was tart and sardonic, as it should be. Here the concert master, David Le Page provided pithy and spiky violin solos on his deliberately mistuned second instrument. The entire orchestra played with precision and commitment. The long slow movement began wonderfully with playing of a very special quality from the strings. Even though I missed the richness of Mahler’s original scoring the way the music was delivered here provided much compensation. I thought Woods’ handing of this movement was very fine indeed; he really exhibited a fine feel for the music and the emotions behind it. The players delivered the climaxes with fervour but even so when the great final climax arrived, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed. The orchestral forces, for all their efforts, simply couldn’t replicate the glorious sunburst of Mahler’s original and the lack of timpani – the notes assigned instead to the piano – left something of a hole at the centre of the music, as did the lack of a complete horn section. This was one of a number of points where I was puzzled by Klaus Simon’s decision not t include a trumpet in his orchestra. (The other glaring example came in the first movement where the reference to what became the trumpet call at the start of the Fifth Symphony was instead given to the clarinet.) The rapt close of the movement was beautifully achieved, though having a piano instead of a harp wasn’t ideal.

April Fredrick returned to sing ‘Das himmlische Leben’ and she proved to be a captivating story teller, once again displaying complete engagement with the music. This was probably the movement that worked best of all in the reduced scoring. Despite my reservations about the chamber scoring I was glad to have had the chance to experience the music performed live in this way and my enjoyment was enhanced significantly by hearing the music delivered so stylishly by tonight’s performers.

This was a most thoughtfully designed programme, expertly delivered.

John Quinn

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