Has there ever been a more heartwarming venture than the
set up by Arnold Schoenberg in 1918?
I doubt it. In just three years, this group gave more than 100 concerts, airing music that was not easy to hear in Vienna, featuring composers ranging from Bartok and Ravel to Debussy and Webern.
When scores were beyond the resources of his chamber-sized forces, Schoenberg simply scaled the work down, most drastically when the gargantuan score of Mahler's Song of the Earth was allotted to just 17 musicians.
A new Naxos CD offers this mighty sequence of lieder, along with four selections from the same composer's Songs of a Wayfarer, with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players and Attacca Quartet.
Crisply recorded, Mahler's great Earth Song may startle and delight many, with its potent woodwind colourings and a striking intimacy that only falls short in the final 31-minute Farewell.
The weakness lies in its soloists, British-born Canadian mezzo Susan Platts and American tenor Charles Reid. Critics may have hailed Platts' "dark, fervent mezzo" as "superbly Mahlerian" but it needs the backdrop of an orchestra to make full impact. With Reid, alas, his vocal robustness that has been praised on more than one occasion, too often crosses the line into stridency.
However, all is not lost. Considering the modest pricing of Naxos discs, some may consider purchasing this for the four Wayfarer Songs with English baritone Roderick Williams. There's less Mahlerian angst lurking in these joyous, folk-like verses, penned by the composer himself, and Williams sings them with the elan and lyricism that they deserve.
What: Mahler Songs, arranged by Schoenberg (Naxos)
Verdict: Mighty Mahler lieder are scaled down to chamber-music proportions by Schoenberg