Woods goes on to observe that “for much of the 20th Century, the arrangements of the Society were largely forgotten. In an affluent age, there seemed to be little need for arrangements of Mahler symphonies and songs for 10-15 players. However, in the last twenty years or so, these arrangements have seen a resurgence, and have become recognised as being artistically interesting in their own right. From a listener’s point of view, they offer a more intimate view of the music, one that perhaps allows the creativity and artistry of the individual performances to shine through. In the age of Covid-19, these arrangements have taken on a new importance in our musical life.”
Visions of Childhood is prefaced with a brief 15 seconds of the opening measures of the Mahler Symphony No. 4 with its sleigh bells and violins, in an arrangement by Erwin Stein. We then immediately are ushered into a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which is, as Woods points out, Wagner’s only mature quality piece of purely instrumental music, originally scored for 13 solo players that first performed it on Christmas morning in 1870 as a surprise for Wagner’s wife, Cosima. As performed here, this is more than 18 minutes of utterly beautiful music, even in Woods’s somewhat stripped-down arrangement, for which he explains that “in order to bring this work into the same soundworld as the rest of the programme, I’ve had to sacrifice (the) trumpet part and the two beautiful horn parts, as well the second clarinet and bassoon, but have been able to add piano and harmonium. Where possible, I’ve kept the parts from Wagner’s original unchanged in the instruments which carried over, but no single part in my arrangement is exactly the same as in Wagner’s.”
But between these two arrangements of contrasting songs by Mahler, Woods again presents us with a combination of a song and variations of music by Schubert, Der Tod and Das Madchen (“Death and the Maiden”). Aficionados of chamber music are likely familiar with Schubert’s string quartet that bears that moniker. Woods gives us his arrangement of the slow movement of the quartet with his orchestration of the song added at the end, a song in which the young maiden pleads with Death to pass her by but Death responds by saying, “Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,/Softly shall you sleep in my arms!” And then we are privy to the ultimate vision of childhood, a child’s view of heaven in this excerpt from the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Fredricks’ voice seems perfectly suited for this music; indeed, I would love to hear Woods and Fredricks record the full symphony with full orchestra. But do not let that let comment cast any doubt on my admiration for what Woods, Frederick, and the assembled musicians have accomplished here, which is truly remarkable.
If the program ended there, this CD would be highly recommendable, but as they say on those TV commercials, “Wait, there’s more!”
The program closes with a chamber arrangement by James Ledger of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The work is a specialty of soprano Fredrick, with the liner notes explaining that “the work’s exploration of the fragility of life took on new urgency and poignancy when Fredric contracted Covid-19 in late March, and so it was only right that this should be the work with which she returned to the performing arena with the ESO on the 26th of July for this filmed concert and recording.” As Fredrick herself explains, “the fatigue, which is one of the virus’s symptoms, was like nothing I’d experienced, giving a new dimension to the multiple uses in the cycle of the wonderful German adjective ‘müde’’ (‘tired, weary, worn out’). But I will also never forget the incredible, almost euphoric joy I felt the first time I walked out or my front door after my quarantine -- what an unthinkable privilege to be well and free to move about again. A stark encounter with mortality, weariness, euphoria, and ‘weiter, stille Friede (wide, still peace); the virus provided me with the most curious sort of gift of experience which has forever stamped and deepened my understanding of this work.” Hearing the cycle in this arrangement is a remarkable experience, especially when my previous exposure to the work has been through the huge sound of the late Jessye Norman accompanied by Kurt Masur with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That is a recording I treasure for its sheer sumptuousness, but this version with Fredrick, Woods, and the small band of ESO players is equally striking for presenting the music with beauty of a more intimate sort.
All in all, this is a truly satisfying release. The music is familiar but presented in novel arrangements that work remarkably well both musically and intellectually, providing much to reflect on regarding life, love, and death. The sound quality is excellent, and the liner notes are extensive and illuminating; as a welcome bonus, they include full lyrics in both German and English. And with a length of more than 79 minutes, you are certainly getting more than your money’s worth with this disc. Highly recommended!