Friday 19 February 2021

A celebration of the art of transcription: Visions of Childhood from Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra and soprano April Fredrick

Visions of Childhood - Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert, Richard Strauss; April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance

Visions of Childhood
- Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert, Richard Strauss; April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 February 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A celebration of the art of transcription, Kenneth Woods and ESO's disc takes us from Wagner celebrating birth to Mahler's version of a child's vision of heaven

In the last twenty years or so, the art of transcription has begun to be celebrated in its own right, rather than simply being seen as a musical tool. In the three years from 1919 to 1921, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, of which Arnold Schoenberg was a leading light, gave performances of chamber transcriptions of over 150 works. And it is these chamber versions which are the inspiration for Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra's new disc. Rather than seeing the restrictions of recording under social distancing rules, Woods and the orchestra have instead celebrated the art of the chamber transcription.

Using Vision of Childnood as the theme, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra are joined by soprano April Fredrick on Nimbus Alliance for a programme of Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert and Richard Strauss in orchestrations by Erwin Stein, Kenneth Woods and James Ledger.

The programme begins with a tiny fragment of Erwin Stein's version of Mahler's Symphony No.4 and this leads into Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in a new version by Kenneth Woods. For the disc, Woods has used a line-up inpsired by that available to the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, so we have flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, piano, harmonium, percussion, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, double bass. This means that Woods' version lacks the climactic, but tiny, trumpet part as well other parts but introduces piano and harmonium. This might be bothersome for purists, but this is a disc which celebrates transcription. And faced with a recording of the idyll that is as vibrant and impulsive as this, I am certainly won over. The music is engaging throughout and wonderfully gusty in the way emotions blow in and out quickly. Woods' version of the idyll is certainly not po faced, nor is it symphonic music manqué, this feels like real chamber music.

April Fredrick as Gretel and Hansel with ESO
April Fredrick as Gretel and Hansel
with Kenneth Woods and English Symphony Orchestra

What follows is two excerpts from Wagner's disciple, Engelbert Humperdinck, who during 1880 and 1881 assisted on the premiere production of Wagner's Parsifal and taught Siegfried Wagner music.

We hear the Sandman's song and the evening prayer from his opera Hansel and Gretel, with April Fredrick delightfully singing both Hansel and Gretel. 

For all the music's simple charm, Humperdinck's opera successfully captures something of the dark complexity of a child's life, and this is something that is picked upon in the next piece, Schubert's Die Forelle setting a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart.

This is brought home by the poem's fourth verse, which Schubert did not set:

You who tarry by the golden spring
Of secure youth,
Think still of the trout:
If you see danger, hurry by!
Most of you err only from lack
Of cleverness. Girls, see
Seducers with their tackle!
Or else, too late, you’ll bleed.

Woods takes a highly interventionist approach here, he interweaves variations from Schubert's Trout Quintet with the verses of the song. This requires a degree of harmonic adjustment, and transposing the song from its original key (D flat major) into that of the variations (D major). Woods' orchestration of the piano part, and of the quintet is totally delightful and he interleaves the two works in a way which makes one wonder why no-one has done it before. Truly a celebration of the art of transcription, and full of lovely touches in the orchestration. Fredrick sings with charm and is supported by the buoyantly exuberant instrumental ensemble.

Things get somewhat darker with Mahler's Das irdische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song forms a sort of dark mirror to the song Das himmlische Leben which comes at the end of the recital and which provided Mahler with musical material for both Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4. If the orchestration of the Schubert takes it into a later world, in the Mahler song Woods sticks closer to Mahler's original and the result successfully captures the song in miniature. 

And we are in still darker territory with Schubert's Death and the Maiden. Again Woods combines song and chamber music, but this time he orchestrates the slow movement of the string quartet and makes it lead into the song. The orchestrations wander pretty far from Schubert's sound world, forming a wonderful celebration of the art of transcription, and Fredrick's sober account of the song makes a devastating conclusion to the exuberance of the earlier variations.

The Visions of Childhood sequence finishes with Das himmlische Leben, originally from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but the song was the source of much of the inspiration of Symphony No. 3 and became the finale of Symphony No. 4. So after all the darkness, we end with heaven in the eyes of a child.

What to complete the disc with?

Soprano April Fredrick is an affiliate artist of ESO, and as a lyric soprano Strauss' Four Last Songs  are something of speciality, they were the last pieces she sang before lockdown last year. Then in March 2020, she contracted COVID-19, and the songs formed her return to performing (with ESO) in July 2020.

Fredrick says of her illness, "The fatigue, which is one of the viruses’ 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’),"

The songs are performed in orchestrations made by Australian composer James Ledger, originally for soprano Felicity Lott and the Nash Ensemble, and premiered by them with conductor Bernard Haitink. Strauss' original is notorious for the way it combines a lyric soprano part with lush orchestrations. Not for nothing did Strauss entrust the premiere to Kirsten Flagstad's notoriously focused, flexible yet powerful soprano. With this orchestration, Ledger sacrifices some of that lushness but brings a chamber intensity to the piece.

There is still a place in my library for The Four Last Songs sung with rich lushness by Jessye Norman, and for versions where a lyric soprano's job is made easier by a conductor who can draw rich yet transparent textures in Strauss' music. But this version (the first time Ledger's orchestration has been recorded) is a delightful way to experience the songs anew, in a genuinely chamber feel with individual lines floating in an out of focus. Just occasionally Fredrick seems to push a little to hard at climaxes, she doesn't need to, as she is wonderfully supported by the instrumentalists.

Overall this is a delightful disc, a celebration of the art of transcription and a way of looking anew at famliar repertoire.

Visions of Childhood
Prologue, Bedächtig, nicht eilen from Symphony No. 4. - Gustav Mahler, arr. Erwin Stein
Siegfried Idyll WWV 103 - Richard Wagner, arr. Kenneth Woods
Der kleine Sandmann and Abendsegen from Hänsel und Gretel. - Engelbert Humperdinck, arr. Kenneth Woods
Die Forelle, Lied and Variations - Franz Schubert, arr. Kenneth Woods
Das irdische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn - Gustav Mahler, arr. Kenneth Woods
Der Tod und das Mädchen, Variations and Lied - Franz Schubert, arr. Kenneth Woods
Das himmlische Leben from Symphony No. 4 - Gustav Mahler
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) TrV296 - Richard Strauss, arr. James Ledger
April Fredrick, soprano
English Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director and Conductor

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