The performance on this CD is a transcription by musicologist Ronald Stevenson (first movement) and pianist Christopher White (movements 2 through 5) of the Deryck Cooke performing version of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony. White’s purpose is explained in an essay in the CD booklet: “My intention was, partly, to tap into a tradition with which Mahler in his time would actually have been rather familiar.” This statement comes after a couple of disavowals: The transcription isn’t an attempt at “finding our way back to the original Mahler,” nor is it a desire for a “wider dissemination of an unknown work,” since CDs of the several realizations of the symphony are readily available.
There was, indeed, an established tradition of transcribing Mahler symphonies for piano, from Walter’s four-hand version of the First to Mahler’s own piano rolls, but White goes on to cite Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven, Schumann, and Weber. There is, however, an obvious distinction: Where Mahler was augmenting, White and Stevenson are reducing, as transcriptions for piano of orchestral works inevitably must. The pianist describes his attempts at “quasi-orchestral effects,” though one might ask why a transcription for piano of the 10th would be concerned with matters of orchestration, since it is precisely the lack of much of the orchestration that, for many Mahlerians, disqualifies the symphony from inclusion in the canon. White explains that he considers his piece a “piano commentary on the performing draft” of Mahler’s symphony, and it was as such that I approached this recording.
The contrast in tempo between the opening Adagio and the Andante of the first theme is mostly absent here as the opening slows markedly before the principal theme arrives; this is effective, however, in establishing the bleakness of the opening in contrast to the warmth of that first theme. That I was less aware of the absent orchestra than I had anticipated is tribute both to the pianist and to Stevenson’s arrangement. The sudden dissonance worked well until the “cry” assigned in the orchestral version to the trumpet; this can’t be easily duplicated on the piano, and the busy trills that accompany the nine-note chord aren’t a good enough substitute.
White manages the constantly shifting rhythmic accents of the second movement with apparent ease; he also clarifies the tricky counterpoint. The warmly ingratiating Trios are lovely. White allows you to admire Mahler’s melodies without regard to the propriety of an orchestral version (though, of course, those of us familiar with any of the versions will probably supply our own much of the time). The “Purgatorio” movement may be the most appealing due to its delightfully satiric character, quite pronounced in this transcription—it could almost be Satie.
The dance element of the fourth movement is very much at the heart of White’s transcription; the performance possesses an elastic sense of rhythm and a palpably nostalgic grace. As the movement nears its conclusion, White becomes inventive as he strives to imitate the sound of Mahler’s muffled drum: He employs “a complicated trick involving the third pedal and my right forearm to generate extra resonance.” It’s an interesting effect, but not the sound we need; here, it’s a sharp thwack, more imitative of the hammer blows in the finale of the Sixth, when what we need is a deeper, even dampened, note. For those keeping score, White places the first drum beat at the end of the movement, and begins the fifth movement with the ascending figure in the bass before repeating the drum sound.
The unearthly beauty of the melody that Mahler indicated was to be played by a flute is no less affecting on the piano, another indication that Deryck Cooke was correct: This is, indeed, “pure Mahler, and vintage Mahler at that.” White captures the burlesque nature of the Allegro section that leads to the quote from the first-movement dissonance with both dexterity and sensitivity; as the music slows to near stasis, the lovely lyrical melody reasserts itself in playing of nobility and heartbreaking poise. This is a song without words, and the piano is just as convincing a medium as the orchestra to convey it.
It is not at all surprising to read in the notes that White’s master’s degree dissertation focused on the music of Mahler. His transcription is not merely evidence of a familiarity with the Mahlerian idiom; it is infused with a profound understanding of the importance of this work in the larger context of Mahler’s symphonic journey. Highly recommended.
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