United Kingdom Visions of Childhood – Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert, Mahler: April Fredrik (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (conductor). Filmed in Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, relayed via the ESO’s YouTube channel, 16.10.2020. (JQ)
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G Major (opening)
Wagner (arr. Woods) – Siegfried Idyll
Humperdinck (arr. Woods) – ‘Der Kleine Sandmann’; ‘Abendsegen’ (Hänsel und Gretel)
Schubert (arr. Woods) – ‘Die Forelle’; Lied and Variations for soprano and orchestra
Mahler (arr. Woods) – ‘Das Irdische Leben’
Schubert (arr. Woods) – ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’; Variations and Lied for chamber ensemble and soprano
Mahler (arr. Stein) – Symphony No.4 in G major (‘Das Himmlische Leben’, fourth movement)
Following hard on the heels of their inaugural online concert of music by Richard Strauss (review), Kenneth Woods and members of the English Symphony Orchestra offered the second concert in the series. The concert had been recorded in the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth during the summer and once again the orchestra was joined by the soprano, April Fredrick, their Affiliate Artist.
For this concert fairly modest forces were assembled: string quartet, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, harmonium and (for the Mahler items only) a percussionist.
The concert began with a tiny upbeat in the shape of the first few bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The relevance of that fragment would become apparent later. The programme was presented as an unbroken sequence, so Kenneth Woods’ arrangement of Siegfried Idyll followed after the briefest of pauses. The use of just 10 players brought a real sense of intimacy to Wagner’s domestic musical offering, though the intimacy did not preclude passion at the work’s brief climax. I appreciated the sense of flow that Woods imparted to the music. For her first appearance April Fredrick was suitably costumed to sing as Humperdinck’s Sandman. For this, and all the other vocal items, English subtitles were provided. The serene Evening Prayer followed, sung by Hansel and Gretel. I was mildly surprised to see both singers wearing headphones; only later did I discover that through the magic of digital technology it was April Fredrick that we saw and heard singing both parts. The sophisticated innocence of Humperdinck’s music was well conveyed in this performance.
Kenneth Woods has made several arrangements of pieces to programme alongside chamber performances of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I know that his Variations on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ is one such and I presume that the Variations on ‘Die Forelle‘ is another. Woods’ arrangement of Die Forelle ingeniously combines Schubert’s song with the variations which he composed for his ‘Trout’ Quintet. April Fredrick sang verses of the song, each one separated by an instrumental ‘interlude’ from the quintet. Ms Fredrick’s singing was fresh and animated and I enjoyed very much the experience of hearing the two Schubert pieces effectively blended into one. Woods’ arrangement was most successful and I particularly liked the extra variety of timbre that resulted from adding the three woodwind instruments to the usual mix of strings and piano. This is an attractive and inventive piece.
By contrast, in the Variations on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ we don’t hear Schubert’s song until the very end. I have heard this piece before. It was included in a 2019 concert in which Kenneth Woods conducted the Orchestra of the Swan; April Fredrick was the soloist on that occasion, too (review). Woods’ arrangement is of the slow movement of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet, D810. Appropriately we hear just the four stringed instruments first, gravely intoning, as they do in the Quartet’s slow movement, the music which, in the song itself, is associated with Death. Then Woods expands the scoring to bring in the other instruments. His re-touching of Schubert’s original is most discerning: I especially liked the way the cor anglais is used at times. Throughout the performance – as elsewhere in the concert – it was apparent that the players were listening keenly to each other; this was genuine chamber playing. The arrangement of Schubert’s Quartet movement segues seamlessly into the song ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. Woods achieves his segue by having the grave introduction played by the harmonium and this very different timbre acts as a neat punctuation device. I liked Kenneth Woods’ take on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ the first time I heard it and a second opportunity to experience it was very welcome.
In between the Schubert offerings Ms Fredrick sang Mahler’s song ‘Das Irdische Leben’. She put the song across intensely and Kenneth Woods’ scoring, which I am sure took its cue from Erwin Stein’s chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, was extremely effective. It was entirely appropriate, then, to finish the programme with ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ in Stein’s chamber version. Not only was this an intelligent alteration of Mahler and Schubert but it also took us full circle to that tiny Mahlerian fragment with which the concert began. I must be honest and admit I have never been a great fan of the chamber arrangements of some of Mahler’s works. I fully understand why the earliest arrangements were made, in order to disseminate Mahler’s music more widely in days long before broadcast and recordings were feasible. However, even in the most skilful of such arrangements I miss so much when I listen to these arrangements – for example, in this present case the rasp of the horns at the point where the text refers to St Luke slaughtering the ox. Having said that, though, I found this present performance of the finale of the Fourth worked much better than I had expected. I can only conclude that this was because it came as the culmination of a similarly-scored and well-constructed programme. April Fredrick sang in a very appealing way and I especially admired her expressiveness in the closing pages (from ‘Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden…’) As they had done throughout the concert, the players of the ESO displayed great sensitivity. This was a fine way to end the programme.
This was a most thoughtfully constructed sequence of Visions of Childhood. Not only was the choice of music discerning, I also thought the ordering of the pieces was highly perceptive. So, for example, the light, charming world of ‘Die Forelle’ gave way to the darker environs of ‘Das Irdische Leben’ and ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ before the mood lightened again with ‘Das Himmlische Leben’. This was very intelligent programme planning.
The musicians performed all this music with great skill and empathy. It was an enjoyable and stimulating concert.