By now we’re so familiar with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony as realized by Derych Cooke – his performing version seems, probably justly, to have achieved canonic status – that we tend to forget the facts that (a) there are several other realizations, (b) over half the work – movements 2, 4 and 5 – exists only in particell drafts of considerable complication, ambiguity and varying degrees of definition. If anything, that gives a solo piano interpretation of the materials as much legitimacy as an orchestral one, though the case is slightly different in movements 1 and 3, which Mahler had more or less fashioned into full score. Any piano version of the whole symphony will thus be partly a transcription and partly an imaginative re-creation, a subtle balancing act in interpretation.
The version on this disc is further balanced between two transcribers. Ronald Stevenson’s solo piano version of Mahler’s great Adagio is one of the most striking feats of transcription that this master of the art has achieved. It dates from 1987, was not premiered until 2002 (in Czechoslovakia, by Alton Chung Ming Chan), and has been seldom performed since. (I heard its UK premiere at St John’s, Smith Square on April 13 th , 2008, played by Alton Chung as part of the wonderful three-day ‘Stevenson at 80′ festival, which featured amazing feats of musicianship – by no means all in Stevenson repertoire – from an international cast of performers; yet it attracted, as far as I’m aware, precisely nil critical notice in the UK press.)
From the opening bars of Stevenson’s transcription of the Adagio we are up against the inalienable fact that the piano cannot sustain any note or harmony at a constant dynamic; they can only decay, or be reinforced by repetition. In this predominantly very slow and sometimes very quiet music, where some of the most telling effects are produced precisely by one voice holding a dissonant or complementary tone against another, a transcriber faces severe challenges and will need all his skill, not only with the fen fingers (just enough for the famously scarifying climactic nine-tone dissonance) but with the pedals too, preferably three of them. Stevenson’s paramount achievement in this Adagio, it seems to me, is his success at conveying a real sense of sostenuto throughout, allowing the huge movement to expand at its own pace with no loss of intensity. He has not attempted to render orchestra colour but to re-imagine the movement as piano music. The effect, if anything, is to clarify the polyphonic density of Mahler’s thought and intensify the pungency of its dissonance. The nakedness of the voice-leading makes one aware that the lushest harmonies are sustained by girders of steel.
Christopher White plays with dedication and great eloquence – one can understand his admiration for Stevenson’s achievement and his wish to give it a wider context. In one sense – though this is not to devalue them – his transcriptions of the other movements are the setting for this jewel of pianistic recreation. White’s own success, in movements hardly less difficult to transmute into keyboard terms, seems to me patchier. The ‘Purgatorio’, perhaps because of its relative textural simplicity, works excellently as a piano piece, and White’s embellishments in the reprise of the opening section seem very much in the virtuoso spirit of the enterprise. The first scherzo, however, stubbornly sounds like a workaday – though effective, and impressively played – reduction of an orchestral score. The second scherzo is extraordinary; the angular, fractured phrases of the opening underline how close to Berg, even to Schoenberg, this music is, and White’s transcribing powers seem at their best here for much of its length, though he can find no real equivalent for the sinister percussion-only coda; what is a timbral shock in the orchestral version becomes fairly ordinary piano sonority here. I except from this, however, the baleful deep drum-beat that opens and is recurrent element in the finale, which White renders with brutal vividness. The Langsam opening of this last movement ranks with Stevenson’s Adagio for atmosphere and poise, but the finale as a whole from the start of the Allegro moderato , doesn’t seem to work so effectively as a piano piece, and the closing pages, for me at least fall short of the necessary intensity and effectiveness. All the same, taken as a whole, this is a version of Mahler’s Tenth that should give even the most ardent Mahlerian pause for thought.
While writing this review I had a chance encounter with the Mahler expert Mark Doran, who pointed out that though the disc proclaims itself to be a piano transcription of the Cooke realization, Stevenson’s Adagio appears to have been transcribed from an earlier edition. (Having made some comparisons I now think his source was the score produced by Ernst Krenek in 1922 – 23 with contributions by Franz Schalk and Zemlinsky, finally published by Associated Music Publishers in 1951 – before the Cooke, the only generally available source for the Adagio .) Doran also made the point that we should remember that something like this must have been what Mahler himself played to Alma while he was working on the Symphony.
In fact, all the symphonies but the Tenth were actually issued in piano arrangements in or shortly after Mahler’s lifetime, so it could be said that this Stevenson-White version has now completed the canon.
White plays with fire and passion throughout, as he must, and shows great skill in negotiating what must often be very difficult textural problems. His tempos are justly chosen and his pedalling superb. The actual recording, made in Rosslyn Hill Chapel, has a rather shallow acoustic, but once one’s ears adjust seems perfectly adequate. An utterly absorbing release.
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