I quite like a good piano transcription and performance of orchestral work. Discs like Gyorgy Sandor’s excellent recital of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and others on a sadly deleted old CBS release have been a part of my private passions, so the unusual prospect of Gustav Mahler’s final unfinished masterpiece, the Symphony No.10 , newly transcribed and performed on the piano, just had to be investigated.
This piano transcription follows the Deryck Cooke performing version of Mahler’s draft of the orchestral score. Christopher White sums up the aims or “non-intentions” of such a project – making no claims for attempts to reproduce or compete with the orchestra on the piano, while introducing some overt effects in places. The first movement, and the most frequently played of the piece, the Adagio , was transcribed by remarkable musician Ronald Stevenson, the others by Christopher White. The quality of both musicians’ work on the score is consistently high.
I anticipate being taken to task for any comments I make about this recording, [see comments below] probably in the same way as for another piano recording which came my way some time ago, made by the same engineer. I point this out as a description is made of the recording techniques used for piano music, which would lead one to expect that all should be well. I don’t want to be negative, but I find it rather difficult to say very much positive about the sound for this disc. I am sure that Christopher White plays with eminent skill, and he certainly has a remarkable technique – falling short only in places which would have most of us sobbing under the piano long before. I am however not the only one to have found this recording to be ‘lacking in colour’, which is a polite way of saying it’s pretty awful by most objective modern standards. It’s hard to tell; the piano itself may or may not be a good one, but here it sounds a bit twangy, like a much loved and well looked after pub piano, but a pub piano nonetheless. The all important bass which would provide so much dynamic interest, and would underpin those staggering harmonies, is virtually absent. I won’t bang on about it, but I’m afraid most of the pleasure I’d anticipated when receiving this disc evaporated almost as soon as the first sounds drifted in through my much too expensive headphones. Monitored through decent speakers makes little difference, and the more decent your speakers, the more insinuating the deficit. It’s like paying full price for a concert ticket, and finding yourself listening from the annex through a half open door – very frustrating.
There is always some educational value in hearing familiar music through different media, and I do feel this is a serious project which deserves attention. What this performance does seem to highlight is how much editing and refinement Mahler would no doubt have done had he survived to complete the score. We’ve perhaps become a little too ‘comfortable’ with the established orchestral version, and with numerous bare bones exposed in this way there are plenty of places which raise textual question marks. Christopher White is a young pianist whose growing experience will no doubt mean his developing ways and means of dealing with certain passages, and turning them into more convincing music. It strikes me as very tricky to turn the first Scherzo into more than the swathes of rather repetitious struggle which appear here. With more time and space given to the notes, and more sympathetic consideration given to the heft and voicing in places, I’m sure more can be made of this. Maybe this is one movement where the orchestral ‘sound’ should lead the pianist. The Purgatorio works perhaps a little better, and in general the least dense sections clearly work best. There are some interesting pedal effects in the opening of the second Scherzo , and White’s big drum wallops at the beginning of the Finale are impressive, or would be if… Oh dear, we’re back to the recording again.
MusicWeb International has covered many versions of this work, and for those interested in orchestral performances I would point readers towards the invaluable and compendious overview of recordings by Tony Duggan. As for this CD, unlike films like ‘Alfie’ and ‘The Italian Job’ this is one release which in 10 or 15 years time will be ripe for a remake, and one which can with relative confidence be expected to be an improvement on the original.
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