MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major & No. 2 in C Minor (both arr. for piano four hands by Bruno Walter) – Piano Duo Trenkner/Speidel – MD&G multichannel SACD MDG 930 1778-6 (2 discs), 70:38, 60:55 [Distr. by E1] ****:
Bruno Walter (1876–1962) was associated with Mahler almost from the beginning of his musical career. In 1896, Mahler suggested him for the position of Kapellmeister of the Stadtheater in Bresslau, and later Walter became Mahler’s assistant at the Court Opera in Vienna. After Mahler’s death, he gave the premiere performances of Das Lied von der Erde and the Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Much later, in the 1930s, Walter made the first recordings (live) of these two works with the Vienna, living long enough to make early stereo recordings of the Ninth and Second Symphonies with the New York Philharmonic.
Walter was also active as a composer, at least till around 1910 and, on the evidence of the current disc, as an arranger of the music of others. Unfortunately, the notes to this recording supply no information about the occasion or date of Walter’s piano arrangements of Mahler’s first two symphonies, except to say, rather unnecessarily, that they “are clearly intended for performance.” But in fairness to note-writer Till Waidelich, he does go on to explain, “That can be the only explanation for the very subtle dynamics markings, which are intended to give prominence to individual passages or to avoid doing so (‘in the forefront’, ‘all accents tenderly’, ‘softer than the left hand but songfully’).” As Waidelich notes, there are effects that the arranger can’t mimic. For example, the sustained high A in the strings at the start of the First Symphony: even with the piano’s sustaining pedal, this can’t be reproduced on the piano, but instead the A must be struck “repeatedly. . .from time to time, which cannot reproduce the peaceful effect of a sustained note.”
Still, it’s obvious that special care went into the preparation of these arrangements, and one of the best evidences is that the two works emerge with very different characters, just as they do in their original orchestral garb. The First Symphony sounds comparatively small-scale, almost Classical in Walter’s arrangement, while the Second immediately has a more commanding musical posture, the result of Mahler’s (and thus Walter’s) emphasis on the bass in the first movement, as well as the sheer massiveness of the musical forces, orchestral and choral, brought to bear on the huge finale. Mahler’s greater emphasis on counterpoint also accounts for a bigger, denser sound from the piano. Waidelich mentions that in some spots, such as “the trills in Mahler’s Second Symphony, the keyboard arrangement sounds so authentic that it might be the form the composer originally had in mind.” I assume Waidelich refers to the last movement, where the piano trills help to underscore the ethereal nature of Mahler’s Resurrection vision. Just as idiomatic is Walter’s treatment of the scherzo second movement of the First Symphony, where the pointed question-and-answer writing translates very naturally to four-hand piano. Though I do miss the pleasant rasp of the muted horns here.
Of course, if you’re really conversant with the orchestral scores, there will be features you miss, but in many cases there will be compensation, even if that consists only in determining how effectively (or not) Walter did his job. Again, there’s just no capturing on the piano the special mordant humor the solo double bass brings to the parodistic funeral march in the First Symphony. (The klezmer-band interruptions are satisfying enough on piano, though.) However, rather unexpectedly, I’ve suspended disbelief to the extent that I don’t miss the vocal solos and choruses of the Second Symphony, ready to accept Walter’s purely instrumental rendering of these sections, which I find sufficiently magical. Others for whom Mahler’s vocal music and the sung texts are central will have different reactions. But I’m well enough impressed and diverted by Walter’s treatment of the scores to return to them, which I’ve done quite often in recent weeks.
The piano duo of Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel have widely performed and, also for MD&G, recorded arrangements of Mahler and Bruckner, including the Mahler Sixth and Seventh and Bruckner Third. Their experience shows. These are subtly shaded, powerfully scaled performances of both works, all captured in rich, resonant sound by Werner Dabringhaus of MD&G. This recording won’t be every music lover’s cup of tea, but I think many Mahler enthusiasts will want to hear Walter’s translation of the composer’s monumental scores.