Classical Notes

Mahler Plays Mahler

"Ging Heut' Morgens ubers Feld"
"Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grunen Wald"
Symphony # 4 (4th movement)
Symphony # 5 (1st movement)

Gustav Mahler, piano
Pickwick CD GLRS 101

treble clef graphicGustav Mahler represents one of the keenest losses to early classical recordings. Despite his present fame as the last of the great German symphonic composers, during his lifetime Mahler was better known as a profoundly influential conductor. His obsessive intensity on the podium fueled headstrong, expressive performances of huge individuality. Mahler was the last and perhaps most extraordinary of all the authentic late-romantic conductors, who never hesitated to mold or even rewrite music to their own taste. Mahler records would provide an enormously valuable key toward reconstructing and understanding the lost performing style of his era. And yet, Mahler died in his prime in 1911, at age 51, without having recorded.

So what's this? Nothing less than Mahler himself at the keyboard--and in digital stereo!

True, these are piano rolls, a medium with a deservedly bad reputation. The integrity of many rolls was compromised by extensive doctoring, both to correct wrong or mistimed notes and to "enhance" the original with new harmonies, runs and doublings. Even when uncorrupted, standard rolls had no quality, as all notes sounded at the same volume and with the same flat, staccato tone. Fine for a barroom, but hardly genuine art.

Mahler's rolls, though, were made in the new Welte-Mignon system, perfected in Germany in 1903. How did it work? We really don't know, since the proprietary process was a closely-guarded secret and the equipment was secured after each session. Apparently, the master was made with ink markings that were then punched as two sets of holes--one for each note and the other for its volume. The latter was a crucial component which transformed the bland mechanical clanking of the traditional piano roll into a genuine performance which replicated the accents, dynamics and overall atmosphere of the original.

Reproduction is achieved not through a player piano, but with a so-called "vorsetzer" unit, which actually plays a concert grand using felt-tipped "fingers" activated by varying degrees of pneumatic pressure triggered by the sets of holes. The result is uncannily realistic and far superior to the limited range of the acoustic disc in conveying the "touch" of an artist. Except for a slight pumping background sound of the pneumatic bellows, the present disc has the full nuance of a genuine performance.

Mahler recorded all four of his rolls in a single session on November 9, 1905. He chose two of his songs, the vocal finale to his Symphony # 4 and the first movement of his Symphony # 5 (which he had completed the previous year), all in arrangements for piano solo. The readings are fast, impulsive and full of highly individual touches, presumably suggesting the manner in which Mahler intended his own works to be interpreted--far more akin to the hysterical passion of Horenstein or Bernstein than the cool modern approach of von Karajan or Haitink.

It may be unfair to infer Mahler's podium style, particularly with respect to other composer's works, from his piano rolls. It is far easier to whip up instantaneous interpretive extremes using only your own hands on a piano than to impart such impulsive desires to an entire ensemble. But whether or not Mahler actually conducted this way, the rolls are our only tangible evidence of his artistic ideals and thus provide invaluable guidance to modern performers who strive for authenticity. And such authenticity is important, as composers of every era wrote with the intention that their works would be performed by artists familiar with the aesthetic norms of their time.

The Mahler rolls themselves consume only 26 minutes of the CD. Also included are performances by modern vocalists using Mahler's rolls as accompaniment. The disc concludes with a half-hour 1960s program of reminiscences of Mahler by retired associates. While this extra stuff is interesting to hear once, it's hardly of the same import as Mahler's performances. The CD would have been a far better value had it included Welte-Mignon rolls by Debussy, Saint-Saens, Grieg or other crucial but underrecorded masters whose performing styles defined their era.


Copyright 1994 by Peter Gutmann

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