A Mahler Symphony on a piano (or two)?

Pianist Stephen Emmerson discusses the Symphony and the upcoming performance upon two pianos with Angela Turner, Brieley Cutting and Stewart Kelly in the Commercial Road Chamber Music Series. 

This is a work that “has it all” and a very rare opportunity to hear this symphony in this arrangement.  As far as we can ascertain, this will be only the second time this has been performed in Australia. We welcome admirers of the symphony to come and see what they think, and hope that lovers of chamber music will share this wonderful experience with us.  We’re looking forward to performing this work again immensely.    Stephen Emmerson, Angela Turner, Brieley Cutting and Stuart Kelly will perform Mahler’s Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”, Friday 9 September at 7pm at the Theme and Variations showroom, 60 Commercial Road, Newstead, Brisbane.  Phone (07) 3666 0650 for bookings.  2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), with his music featured in centenary festivities around the world.  Mahler’s larger-than-life second Symphony – also known as the “Resurrection” – has long been a favourite for Australian audiences. Combining massive orchestral forces, with vocal soloists and large chorus, the work is ambitious in scale; even among the Mahler symphonies, it has a character and, ultimately, an optimism that is all its own.   

Some people may be horrified by any attempt to perform a Mahler symphony on a piano.  Is not his remarkable orchestration an essential part of his symphonic language and its appeal?  And particularly the 2nd symphony with its overwhelming choral finale, how could that be done without a choir, not to mention without a great resounding brass section? Only perhaps a very brave or foolhardy pianist would try to perform such music in public. There is a piano-roll recording that has been released on CD of Mahler himself playing the first movement of his fifth symphony on the piano.  It’s a fascinating document but the complexity of most symphonies goes beyond what can be transcribed satisfactorily for a mere ten fingers.  (Liszt’s extraordinary transcriptions of Beethoven and Berlioz symphonies are exceptions but they are so horribly virtuosic that most performances are more likely to evoke sympathy for the pianist than a fresh engagement with the music.)   To make arrangements more manageable, most symphonies throughout the 19th century were commonly transcribed for piano duet, that is, for two players at one piano.  Before radio and recordings, this was the best way to become familiar with symphonic music without leaving home. For performance outside of a domestic setting, arrangements for two players on two pianos are an even better option and Mahler himself arranged a number of his symphonies for that combination. But with the 2nd symphony, “The Resurrection”, even four hands on two pianos would be stretched to cover the material and delineate clearly all the various lines.  However, in 1914 Universal Edition published a version of the work for two pianos but with eight hands, that is, with two pianists on each piano – a double piano duet, as it were.    It is remarkable how satisfying familiar symphonies can be when transcribed for the sounds of a piano.  Even without the palette of orchestral colours, the ability of a piano to evoke orchestral sonorities can in fact be surprisingly effective.  Such arrangements allow one to hear symphonic works from a fresh perspective. The melodies harmonies and rhythms remain, as do the musical gestures, the infectious dance rhythms, the sense of forward drive and momentum, the clear but surprisingly complex contrapuntal textures, not to mention the anguish, the joy, the purity, the transcendence …  all these essential elements of Mahler’s music remain in a form that need be no less dramatic or expressive.  On pianos, it may be less grandiose (less bombastic some might say) but then, conversely, it may become more intimate, with more of the personal qualities of chamber music, that allow us to hear it afresh.  As Mahler famously said, a symphony must be like a world and this symphony has all the richness and variety of a world complete unto itself.  There is that overtly dramatic first movement, followed by a second movement of disarming charm and simplicity. The third, a scherzo based on material from one of his Wunderhorn songs about St. Anthony preaching to the fishes, abounds in delicious irony.  The fourth movement “Urlicht” (Primeval Light) may be, my humble opinion, the most divine song ever penned and the fifth-movement finale should be nothing less than overwhelming.  Angela Turner, FinePrint, Music Printing & Typesetting, Website: www.fine-print.com.au

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