Chamber brings new freshness to Mahler’s

Chicago Tribune

The Rembrandt Chamber Players presented a fascinating rarity Sunday at the Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall: Erwin Stein’s arrangement for small ensemble of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.

The concert launched a Mahler project that will include similarly pared-down transcriptions of the composer’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” and “Das Lied von der Erde” before its completion in 2010.

In 1920 and 1921, Stein and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg prepared chamber versions of various contemporary scores for performance at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. No critics or outsiders were allowed into these elitist concert gatherings of like-minded musicians, whose primary aim was to realize the composers’ intentions with the utmost care and fidelity.

The Fourth is actually the most chamber-ish of the Mahler symphonies to begin with. Stein scored it for string quintet, flute, oboe, clarinet (doubling on piccolo, English horn and bass clarinet), piano, harmonium, percussion and soprano solo. The harmonium, or foot-powered reed organ, is both an extension of the winds and a substitute for the missing brass parts.

So artfully crafted is Stein’s arrangement, so beautifully wrought was Sunday’s performance under conductor Jane Glover, that you never felt you were looking at Mahler through the wrong end of a telescope. What was lacking in sonic richness was made up for by the many gains: Mahler’s textures and counterpoint took on a startling clarity; instrumental details projected with unusual freshness, charm and presence.

Glover coaxed wonderfully ripe rubato phrasings from her 12 players, scaled climaxes deftly but never lost her grip on the grand design. The scherzo had real sardonic bite, and the finale, a child’s vision of heaven, was affectingly sung by soprano Christine Brandes. Truth be told, I enjoyed this Mahler much more than the previous week’s enervated Mahler’s First by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Rembrandt’s fine, committed performance whetted one’s anticipation of the Mahler-Schoenberg rarities the ensemble plans to present over the coming two seasons.

The concert began with a more recent vocal chamber work, Frank La Rocca’s “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (2001), a modern evocation of the radiant spirituality of ancient chant, with the singer’s stanzas serenely floating atop the simple Aeolian-mode patterns of clarinet and string quartet.