Transfiguration: Music of Mahler, Beethoven, and Schoenberg (CD review)

Kenneth Slowik, The Smithsonian Chamber Players. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77374 2.

By John J. Puccio and Karl W. Nehring

John's View:
This DHM (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) release from 1996 may be as instructional as it is purely entertaining.

The program begins with Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (1901-02), the Adagietto composed as a love song for his wife Alma and the music becoming probably the most popular he ever wrote. Here, it is played on period instruments strung with gut rather than metal strings and performed with special attention to the playing technique and performance style one assumes preferred by the composer. Mahler gave instructions that it be played "very slowly," most conductors taking about ten minutes to get through it, yet Mahler himself played it in about seven minutes, which is about how long it takes Slowik. Interestingly, Slowik's interpretation is remarkably like that of Mahler researcher and amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan's performance in that the tempo is much brisker than we are used to hearing on most modern recordings (and more like Mahler's). Yet, like Kaplan's reading, Slowik's recording works to good effect, perhaps because it appears to conform so readily to Mahler's intentions. Furthermore, the smaller size of the ensemble, the Smithsonian Chamber Players under the direction of Kenneth Slowik, helps to clarify textures, making it a unique experience worth in itself the price of the disc.

Following the Adagietto is Beethoven's Quartetto seriouso in F minor, arranged by Mahler in 1899 for string orchestra. It seems a bit bulky for its own good, but it retains an admirable inner beauty.

Kenneth Slowik
Next comes Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, using the 1917 arrangement scored for string orchestra. This is the centerpiece of the disc's agenda and almost comes into direct competition with a version by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG). The two interpretations sound very much alike except for the slightly smoother tone of the Orpheus Orchestra's newer, modern instruments. Both versions are well recorded, but this newer disc is a touch more transparent.

The album continues with several excerpts from vintage Mahler recordings of the 1920's and 30's for reference points; and it concludes with Arnold Schonberg's 1950 program notes to "Transfigured Night," read in the original English by Richard Hoffmann, Schonberg's secretary and assistant from 1948-51.

The highlight for me, then, is the Adagietto, for its beauty and authenticity. The Schoenberg is a good companion to the Orpheus rendition, hearing Transfigured Night in somewhat different, perhaps more historically attuned sound. And the other bits and pieces make for enlightening listening and learning. With exceptionally warm, clear sound, this disc is a distinctly recommendable buy.

Karl's view:
Be forewarned: this CD is fascinating from the point of view of someone who loves Mahler and wants to learn all he or she can; however, it is also a CD that even for the Mahler fan will probably not be played more than a few times. I will quickly say that I enjoyed the chamber orchestra arrangement of the Beethoven quartet, but have no real desire to hear it again, and let's face it, Verklarte Nacht is something that many music lovers want to hear only occasionally. When you get right down to it, then, the only real attraction on this disk is the Mahler Adagietto.

While Gilbert Kaplan makes a point of playing the Adagietto faster than most conductors tend to play it (7:57--the excellent Abbado 5th on DG has it at 9:01, while I seem to recall that Leonard Bernstein would linger over it for 10 or 11 minutes), Slowik gets through it in an even faster 7:28. And while Kaplan draws a beautiful sound from the London Symphony Orchestra, the smaller forces under Slowik, playing older instruments and sliding spookily (portamento) between notes, manage to make an entirely familiar and beautiful piece of music sound downright strange, perhaps even a bit weird.

As I said at the outset, this will be of interest to hard-core Mahler fans. Believe me, you'll probably never hear another Adagietto that sounds quite like this one--and you'll probably never want to again once you've heard it--but you've really got to hear it at least once.


1 comment:

  1. Uh, "you've really got to hear it at least once."
    No, I don't think so. Zero is enough.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa