Downsized Mahler Second Symphony Is Mixed Bargain

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Gilbert Kaplan (© Tanja Niemann)
Gilbert Kaplan wants to take Mahler’s “Resurrection” to small cities with a reduced arrangement for half the forces.
(© Tanja Niemann)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”), arranged for small orchestra by Gilbert Kaplan and Rob Mathes. Marlis Petersen (soprano), Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano), Wiener Kammerorchester, Wiener Singakadamie, Gilbert Kaplan (conductor). Avie, two CDs.

By Richard S. Ginell

Gilbert Kaplan, the redoubtable Mahler scholar who conducts only one work in public, the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony, and who has already made two recordings of it, has just issued a third, in an arrangement for a small orchestra with roughly half the number of players that Mahler specified. Yes, the mighty “Resurrection” Symphony.

Mahler Symphony No. 2 for reduced orchestra, Gilbert Kapan conducting (Avie Records)Why, you ask? Because Kaplan wants to take Mahler’s message to small towns and cities that can’t muster the massive forces that the composer called for. It’s a laudable motivation in these hard-pressed times, when orchestras are falling to the wayside for lack of funds, and it’s also a trendy one. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Erwin Stein’s chamber version and Das Lied von der Erde in the Arnold Schoenberg/Rainer Riehn cut-down arrangement have caught on lately with several recordings and performances, and new ones are being created for late Romantic blockbusters: Bruckner’s Second Symphony just got the slimmed-down treatment on recordings.

In the few spots – about 5 percent the score, according to Kaplan – where there are more parts than instruments (like passages for the horns and trumpets), Kaplan and his collaborator Rob Mathes assign the missing notes to the other horns, or to trombones or bassoons. Although you can spot the places where this happens, you can barely tell the difference; the blend is convincing enough and Mahler’s overall timbral world remains intact. But small towns will have to supply an extra offstage horn and trumpets; otherwise, the poor brass players are going to be doing some wind sprints in the finale.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

The main question is – do you get anything resembling the full-tilt, overwhelming “Resurrection” experience with a smaller band? There are times when the ensemble sounds a little undernourished in the big moments, but not blatantly so; the piece’s peaks and valleys are still there. The biggest advantage is that you can hear a lot of the inner workings of Mahler’s orchestra more clearly now, and there is plenty of organ for a change in the Finale’s peroration.

The main brake on the wheels here is Kaplan. Though he now advocates more expressive tempo fluctuations than before and gives the second movement a more idiomatic lilt, the pacing is often broader than that of his best-selling LSO recording; the Last Judgment march in the Finale in particular just lumbers along. Only in the last massive climax of the Finale does Kaplan seize the opportunity to pull everything together for maximum impact – just in time. He gets smooth performances from his vocal soloists, and they recorded it live in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, which delivers a satisfying level of reverberation.

For Mahler fans, this is a diverting supplement at best. But for groups that would like to perform the “Resurrection” but thought they couldn’t, this recording will give them hope.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.

Gilbert Kaplan conducts Mahler Symphony No. 2 Wiener KammerOrchester  Singakademie Janina Baechle, Marlis Petersen (WKO)
Kaplan with the Wiener KammerOrchester and Singakademie, soloists Janina Baechle and Marlis Petersen (WKO)