Symphony No. 3 (‘Rhenish’, arr. Mahler); Symphony No. 4 (arr. Mahler)
ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.574430 55:45 mins
There may be one or two disappointed buyers here – not in Marin Alsop’s performances, which are gripping, but in Mahler’s arrangements, which are a lot more subtle and discreet than one might have expected. A great deal of what Mahler does involves thinning out and lightening of textures, or allowing for the increased possibilities of the brass in a late 19th/early- 20th-century orchestra. In fact, you’d have to know the Fourth Symphony really well to spot the differences without a score.
If it does feel a little more lithe and athletic in places, that’s possibly down to Alsop as much as to Mahler (the lively tempo and crisp articulation in the Fourth’s first movement are very welcome). It’s in No. 3, the ‘Rhenish’, that the differences tell more. The timpani part at the start of the first movement, for example, is radically thinned, and the rewriting of the brass includes thrilling hand-muted horns as the recap approaches. But it still sounds like Schumann. In general Mahler’s alterations make more sense if one imagines this music played with the large forces (especially the strings) he would have used. The kind of clarity he was seeking comes over rather better with the trimmer ensembles and ‘informed’ performing practises we’re hearing nowadays.
What these arrangements do bring across however is how much Mahler learned from Schumann: for example there’s more than an echo of the rousing brass fanfares near the end of the ‘Rhenish’ in the finale of Mahler’s First Symphony. Mahler may have felt that Schumann needed a little practical help in places, but the quality that emerges most of all in his slightly re-engineered versions is profound respect.