This is a wonderful concept, perfectly realized. Most recordings of Mahler's arrangements of the quartet literature group this Beethoven quartet with Schubert's Death and the Maiden. Here we get the Adagietto from the Fifth symphony, along with Hans Stadlmair's 1971 arrangement for string orchestra of the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth symphony. The two Mahler adagios bracket Mahler's version of the compact, eruptive Beethoven quartet, creating an hour-long mini-concert full of colorful textures and contrasts--echt Mahler, Mahler as arranger, and as arranged. Very clever, for sure, but more important, musically rewarding.
The Amsterdam Sinfonietta numbers just a bit less than twoRead more dozen players, and you might think that they don't have the weight of tone to do justice to the two Mahler movements. Indeed, there are a couple of points, at the climax of the Adagietto for instance, where greater volume from the high-lying violins might have been helpful, but the playing is so well balanced, romantically passionate, and sonorously recorded that the ear rapidly adjusts. And don't think for a moment that the climax of the Tenth's Adagio lacks impact--not at all. These players really dig into the music, and the lack of woodwind and brass timbre is much less problematic than you might suspect when the playing is so fine.
As for the Beethoven, the performance is as accomplished as any in the catalog. It offers orchestral fullness with the natural, nuanced flexibility of real chamber music. There's no attempt to go for an astringent period sound--this is Beethoven re-imagined as a late-romantic composer, which is of course exactly the point of Mahler's transcription. For that, thank Candida Thompson and her exceptionally musical team. Sonics are state-of-the-art in all formats, as we have come to expect from this label. A project like this, not so well executed, easily could have sounded gimmicky, but this is a pleasure from first note to last.