Given Mahler’s reputation as a purveyor of gargantuanism, it can be a bit of a shock to the system to be faced with a mere 19 musicians gathered on stage to perform his song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Not so much a ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ as a ‘Symphony of a Handful’. Back in the 19th century and early decades of the last century, before recordings and radio made musical dissemination widespread, often the only way to get familiar with larger-scale works was in arrangement – piano duets for home consumption, or chamber versions for less costly ways of giving them in concert. Schoenberg set up a Society for the Private Performance of Music in 1918 partly for this very purpose – to give voice to the music of the day, by him and others, in an unthreatening environment, and if the original was too big to afford it was cut down to size. The music of Mahler, who had been dead a mere nine years when the society launched, played a prominent part and Schoenberg himself began a chamber reduction of Das Lied von der Erde in 1921 just as the society folded. It was completed by another hand in the 1980s and has been performed and recorded widely.

Dame Sarah Connolly © Jan Capinski
Dame Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

Into that tradition has come the Aurora Orchestra’s ‘arranger in residence’ Iain Farrington, who has made his own highly successful version for five solo strings, four woodwind, three brass, two percussionists, celesta and harp, which was first performed a few years ago. It helps that this is perhaps Mahler’s most chamber-like score to start with: the writing is full of instrumental solos and prolonged tuttis are rare. Such is the success of Farrington’s reduction that such solos still largely fall to the right instruments and, the lack of a full string section apart, the ear and brain are easily tricked into imagining one is hearing none other than the original, especially as here in the full-on glare of Kings Place’s acoustic.

The Aurora had been able to secure two of the finest singers it is possible to hear in this music, tenor Andrew Staples and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly. Although relatively brief, the tenor role is one of the toughest in the repertoire and usually the preserve of Wagnerian Heldentenors. Staples, whose career hasn’t so far seen him venturing in that heroic direction, proved that stentorianism is not a prerequisite for Mahler’s demanding writing when competing with 16 players as opposed to an orchestra of a hundred. How often can one say one heard every word in the opening song, Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde? Staples’ tone was resilient and lusty, but with plenty of subtlety and expressiveness in his conveyance of the text. There was wit too, in his banter-like interaction with the instrumental soloists in the drinking song of Der Trunkene im Frühling.

Connolly’s association with Mahler needs no such introduction, and despite the scaled-back ensemble, she brought no comparable withdrawal from the deep expressive import of Mahler’s vocal line and its heartfelt poetry. Her sense of communication with the audience was, as ever, total, her tonal range was expansive but nuanced, and the innocence of the “junge Mädchen” was expressed as perkily as the final, repeated sighs of “ewig” were devastating.

The glowing instrumental sunset that accompanies these final utterances capped a searingly intense reading of the score from the Aurora players under their founder and principal conductor Nicholas Collon. Farrington’s arrangement provides a serious workout for all concerned, with more or less every note part of an exposed solo, but there was real expressive identification from every musician, within the context of a true chamber ensemble as first among equals.

The concert had begun with Mahler’s only real piece of chamber music, the single movement that survives of his early Piano Quartet, and performed here with weight and purpose. It was played as a prelude to the other main work on the programme, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in F major K413, also given in a chamber version, though this time one made by its composer himself. Rather than a flashy concerto, it takes on the feeling more of a domestic sextet for piano and strings, not an inappropriate sense for a work more notable for its charm than its showiness. Soloist John Reid, the Aurora’s own pianist, interpreted it as such, allowing for plenty of mutual give and take between the six musicians in a performance full of lyrical appeal and rhythmic fleet-footedness.