Mahler plays Mahler

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Mahler plays Mahler

  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, 'Songs of a Wayfarer', Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld
  • Lieder und Gesänge, No. 7, Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (wds. Das Knaben Wunderhorn)
  • Symphony No. 4, Sehr behaglich
  • Symphony No. 5, Trauermarsch
  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, 'Songs of a Wayfarer', Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld
  • Lieder und Gesänge, No. 7, Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (wds. Das Knaben Wunderhorn)
  • Symphony No. 4, Sehr behaglich

This really is a historic 'Historic' CD. In November 1905 Mahler made four piano rolls for M. Welte & Sohne in Leipzig, piano rolls that properly reproduced can give us an incredibly accurate and detailed impression of how Mahler played the music. (At least, how he played it in piano transcription.)
Over the years the performances have appeared in various LP incarnations—bafflingly so, since timings tended to vary from transfer to transfer. Now, at long last, under the supervision of that indefatigable Mahlerian Gilbert Kaplan, we have what are probably the definitive reproductions.
The transfers have been overseen by the leading authority on Welte-Mignon piano rolls, Hans Schmitz. Two factors are of particular note. First, there is the fail-safe speed check—Welte-Mignon's own tempo-control test roll complemented by a distance check that was not specified by the manufacturer but which Welte technicians always used. Second, there is the use, not of a piano with an in-built Welte-Mignon device, but of a modern Model D Steinway attached to a meticulously restored Welte-Mignon ''Vorsetzer''—a free-standing control unit that drives the piano of one's choice.
The results of all this, recorded last year in Frankfurt and transferred to CD in New York, are superb. At last, we really can have Mahler the pianist as our house-guest. Interpretatively, the play-throughs have an interest that is both enormous and limited. Yet whatever the limitations—Mahler making a one-off recording for a strange new-fangled device on a day in November 1905—there is no doubting the exhilaration and sweetness of his way with the Fourth Symphony's finale, or the authority and daunting power of his playing of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony.
Playing three of the recordings straight, then playing them again with the voice added is also a nice idea. No doubt Yvonne Kenny's agent is even now revising her biography to include Gustav Mahler as one of the artists with whom she has successfully collaborated.
Finally, there is a bonus which is alone worth the price of the CD. In the early 1960s Los Angeles musicologist William Malloch tracked down and recorded a group of musicians all of whom had played under Mahler, mainly in New York. He also recorded Mahler's daughter, Anna—an old lady of enormous charm who provides her own riveting short memoir. The result is an absorbing warts-and-all profile of Mahler the man, musician and conductor. (Toscanini also gets a walk-on part, though as he is roundly abused by several of the players this is not a disc to give your Toscanini-loving friend as a Christmas present.)
Malloch's brilliantly edited patchwork quilt of impressions first appeared over here on side four of Bernstein's CBS recording of Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2/68—nla). What we now have from Pickwick is a slightly longer version. I don't, for example, remember hearing the story of Mahler explaining to the New York orchestra that when he talked of the ''mist'' in Debussy's Nocturnes, he was using the word in the English sense. In German Mist means ''garbage''. With the press lying in wait, there was no way he was going to risk the headline 'Gustav Mahler says Debussy is garbage'.'

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