Cathedral Station, P.O. Box 1869, New York, NY10025
Interview with Okashiro: http://members.aol.com/okashirore/
Letís start with a question: other than to maintain
ourselves in a state of robust impecunity, why do we buy CDs?
The answers, roughly speaking, are gratification, education, and
elevation. CDs, or any other recorded music format you care to
mention, provide service on tap for our physical, mental and spiritual
needs though not necessarily all at once, or even in that order.
Itís not very often - Iíd even go so far as to say itís very rare
- that a CD comes along which steps outside these normal parameters
and challenges our conceptions of the very fabric of this thing
we call "music". This issue looks like one of that rare
"Oh, come on," I can hear you
saying, "Whatís the Big Deal? Itís only a piano transcription!"
It would be a fair comment, so letís muse on it for a while. As
long as weíve had music, weíve had folk who arrange music conceived
in terms of one instrument or ensemble for some other instrument
or ensemble. In the beginning, as I imagine it, because the truth
of the matter is shrouded in the mists of time, it was "Hobsonís
Choice": either arrange music for the instruments to hand,
or donít play it at all. By and large, up to the Nineteenth century,
"expediency" was the watch-word.
Then other factors entered the fray. With the
advent of the instrumental "virtuoso", arrangements
became rather handy vehicles for showing off oneís digital dexterity.
I get the impression that "artistry" generally took
something of a back seat. At the more mundane level, arrangements
of "large" works, particularly for the increasingly
ubiquitous piano, provided the "pre-gramophonic" public
often with their only avenue for experiencing such works at all.
I donít know about you, but thinking about that gives me
the colly-wobbles! Somewhere in between came the exponents of
instruments not over-endowed with available repertoire. I suppose
we could call these the "neo-expedients".
Of course, it wasnít all "down-sizing".
Some composers, seeing the potential for the "up-sizing"
of, say, solo piano works, busied themselves with orchestral arrangements.
However, all arrangements have in common one thing, which is true
whether at one extreme you set out to simply reflect the original
as faithfully as possible, to make what might be properly termed
a "transcription" or, at the other, you set out to completely
re-think the piece from the ground up. This common factor is that
if you "arrange" a piece of music it becomes, to a lesser
or greater extent, a different piece of music, which must
be judged on its own merits.
That sounds a bit obvious, doesnít it? Obvious
or not, arrangements are real opinion-polarisers. Some folk I
know say they "donít like" arrangements, largely because
they "donít see the point" of messing about with a "perfectly
good piece of music". Their problem, if "problem"
it be, is that they canít see the arrangement as "different"
in any essential way. Others, myself included, are fascinated
by arrangements, largely because they want to find out what is
the point of messing about with a perfectly good piece of music.
With a bit of luck, you end up with two perfectly good pieces
of music for the price of one!
In which of these pigeon-holes does the work
on this CD fit. Nowadays, when the CD catalogueís cup runneth
over, I think we can safely discount it being for the express
purpose of accessibility. With greater confidence, I will declare
that this issue has nothing to do with neo-expediency. With a
recklessness bordering on abandon, Iíd kick out the idea that
this is the plain "transcription" it claims to be -
transcriptions of even relatively "straightforward"
symphonic works struggle to convince, so on that score this has
no chance! That leaves us with "re-thinking from the ground
up" and "virtuoso show-off piece". If at this point
I let it slip that the arrangement follows the line of the original
practically bar for bar, and bearing in mind that itís Mahlerís
First Symphony weíre talking about, youíd get maybe just
a sneaking suspicion that this is a "show-off", wouldnít
Ha! This is where it gets tricky! The booklet
note, juxtaposing a 1Ĺ page article "Titan at the
Keyboard" by "jd hixson" with a transcript of an
interview with the arranger and performer Chitose Okashiro, suggests
that the purpose is none of the aforementioned. This is central
to the issue, so Iíd better try to give you the gist of it. Mahlerís
music opened new dimensions whose "reverberations can be
felt yet to this day". Does this imply that a contemporary
transcription would be nothing more than an act of virtuosic vanity?
Does not the current stranglehold of the "authentic performance
movement" in any event render such a whim "unthinkable"?
It is suggested that Mahlerís own excursions into the arranging
of other composersí music proves that an arrangement is justified
in "the context of its creative achievement". I say
this ignoring any nit-picking observations to the effect that
such a statement will always be true! As far as the piano
is concerned, the arrangerís art "summons new levels of virtuosity
through which to project dimensions and textures envisioned for
You might be forgiven for thinking that this
is just an excuse for some megalomaniac pianistic posturing in
the grand old manner of Franz Liszt at his most showman-like -
but hang on, thereís more. The author reflects on the culture-shock
of modern recording, which has perhaps caused instrumentalists
to become paranoid about technical perfection. In something of
a non sequitur, she concludes that the art of transcription
demands closer interaction with the original score, suggesting
that in the "juncture of composer/performer/listener"
(shades of Arnoldís musical philosophy!) the transcriptive art
"dwells most deeply". And so on. In other words, by
peeling off some of the wrappings we might see more of whatís
inside the package. Now, thereís a revelation!
Okashiro, to my intense relief, declares that
"playing transcriptions does not mean to imitate the orchestra
sound at all". That would be a real waste of time, with real
orchestras the world over churning out "Mahler Firsts"
like Model T Fords! She thinks that pianists these days have,
to some extent, buried their heads in the bellies of their instruments.
She finds that sticking her head above the pianoís parapet and
actually taking notice of the sound of the orchestra provokes
ideas on how to expand her own pianistic potential, whilst the
hard-bitten pianist in her canít help winkling out elements in
symphonic works that her instrument might be able to express rather
more effectively. Thatís an interesting idea - transcribing from
orchestra to piano in order to improve the impact of the
musicís message! Nevertheless, Okashiroís "bottom line"
also conforms to the "wrappings removal" model. She
believes, as happens for example in the piano duet version of
Le Sacre du Printemps, that stripping off the luxuriant
upholstery of the orchestration exposes the harmonic nerves, the
melodic guts, and the rhythmic skeleton of the music - my imagery!
Bruno Walterís four-hands transcription was,
it seems, conceived specifically for domestic consumption in an
age when performances and recordings were pretty thin on the ground
- the "accessibility" model. Consequently, it tried
to convey an "accurate" impression of the original score,
right down to 56 bars of a tremolando "A" to simulate
the mysterious string sound of the opening. His intentions were
of the very best, but as far as Okashiro is concerned such mimicry
is artistically arid; if she is to convey anything meaningful
she perforce must follow the "re-thinking from the ground
This is perhaps just as well. The very idea -
of one pair of hands getting to grips with every note of
a symphony that can stretch the capabilities of a hundred - would
set new standards of utter implausibility. Speaking strictly for
myself, I feel that the entire undertaking sounds implausible
enough as it is; a far more ambitious venture than Mussorgskyís
transcription of Ravelís Pictures at an Exhibition - says
he, tongue firmly in cheek! The question is: in terms of both
her arrangement and her performance, does she succeed? And, while
weíre at it, do we really discover anything about the music that
we didnít know already? Alright, thatís two questions, but whoís
Before we dive into the music, letís look briefly
at the "ancillaries". This is the first recording released
on this label, which is Chitose Okashiroís own venture. At first
glance, there seem to be no details about the recording or its
participants. Itís only when you remove the CD that you see the
information, full details right down to the name of the piano
tuner (who must have been kept busy!) tucked away on the inside
of the u-card behind the transparent CD tray. "JD Hixson"
turns out to be the recording producer who, with engineer Tom
Lazarens and editor Marc Stedman, has done a cracking job of capturing
the formidable sound of the Hamburg Steinway piano that is on
occasions tested almost to destruction. The recording is rich,
wide-ranging, quite closely-miked but with a satisfying ambience.
Oh, and I couldnít help noticing the similarity of pose between
the cover picture of Okashiro sporting a possibly inapt "halo"
and a famous photograph of Mahler himself (above
left). Go on, somebody tell me it was entirely coincidental.
I mentioned the "skeleton of the music"
a few paragraphs back, and that fits the very opening like a glove.
Oddly, the fourths at the start sound a bit "harpsichordish".
Can anyone tell me how this is done? With the spread of As
supplanted by long, decaying bass notes, Mahlerís chains of descending
fourths emerge from almost total darkness, like splinters of bone
penetrating black velvet. Shorn of its luminous sheen, this sounds
less like nature stirring in the mists of dawn, and like something
much more protean - an impression that grows as the long introduction
proceeds and is reinforced during the gloom of the development
section. It feels like we have uncovered the moment of conception
of the Third Symphonyís vision of raw life emerging from
The main subject is beguilingly played, but culminates
in a startlingly ferocious climax. Yet, reflecting as you listen,
you realise that this ferocity is actually inherent in the original.
Again, as the main subject resurges, the "out for a walk
in the country" feeling is countered by emergent violence
in the harmony: we may be out in the countryside, but by gum itís
a dangerous place to be! At the point where Mahlerís structure
seems about to rip itself to shreds, you might reasonably expect
a pianist to keep the tempo moving to prevent tension-sapping
gaps appearing between the notes. Okashiro does the opposite!
She sustains the crackling tension through such sheer brute force
that I had to look again at the sleeve picture: surely that slip
of a lass couldnít clobber a keyboard with such colossal weight?
It was almost a relief that, at the end of the explosion of fanfares,
the continuity momentarily faltered! Only momentarily, mind. She
blazes into the finishing straight with a bruising belligerence,
an image of beastly nature on the rampage that confirms both that
parallel with the Third Symphony and the impression that
she is a pianist of phenomenal talent.
After all that frenetic activity, I was ready
for a breather! The second movement sets off with commendably
rude and robust good humour but, as the theme repeats, so it gets
progressively more aggressive. However, in the main subjectís
"development" the weird dissonance of Mahlerís original,
which you might expect to be even more acidic on the piano, emerges
simply as less diffuse, articulated with the refreshing impact
of splashing spring water, albeit with a thunderous left hand
contributing to the climax! The subsequent, subdued reprise of
the tune is delightfully pecked out, a naive hesitancy that soon
bubbles into a surge of sheer joy. Okashiro invests the central
waltz with a fetching Viennese lilt, stepping and swaying languorously
as if to the manner born - this is thoroughly enchanting. The
close of the movement is by now almost a foregone conclusion,
except that the former aggression has somehow mutated into boisterous
bravado, one presumes under the influence of some schnapps sipped
during the central waltz!
In the third movement the funereal round on Bruder
Martin sets off conventionally, I suppose largely because
thereís not much else you can do with it, but at least it afforded
me the few moments of repose Iíd been gasping for at the end of
the first movement. Overlaying the gloom with some artfully varied
attack, Okashiro makes the high-stepping counterpoint prick the
mournful monotony almost like a sudden squirt of juice from a
lemon and straight in the eye, at that. This is a minor galvanic
jolt that stimulates awareness of the shifting colours she is
squeezing from the slowly revolving, intertwining lines of the
dirge. In the contrasting, wickedly witty "knees-up"
she proves the very model of bad taste, having no truck with the
percussive pussy-footing that bedevils most orchestral performances.
Instead, there are lashings of rumbustious rubato and hair-raising
hairpins that should bring tears of mirth to the eyes of even
the most hardened Mahler purists. In the subsequent wind-down
towards the centre of the movement she exposes some gut-squirming
dissonances, although the tender "lindenbaum" episode
itself brings no surprises except that, in spite of being played
with tenderness and delicacy, it sounds a bit penny-plain. The
reprise of the dirge, booming through the belly of the piano,
is looming, ominous, purposeful, a powerful accumulation of the
elements of the movement that engenders a savage jubilation in
the returning "knees-up" music. This is as near as Iíve
ever heard to "the animals of the forest dancing on the hunterís
Do you find that, in the hands of a top-flight
orchestra and conductor, Mahlerís stürmisch bewegt
engulfs you in torrents of terrifying torment? If so, then prepare
yourself for a real shock. As youíd by now expect, I can tell
you that Okashiro does indeed turn the wick right up for the start
of the finale. However she finds something that to the best of
my knowledge no conductor has found nor, I suspect, would dare
to find: bedlam! Rarely, if ever, has that "heart"
been so "sorely wounded". Of all the passages that have
given me pause for thought, this one, more than any, vindicates
Okashiroís claim that there are some things that the "target
instrument" of an arrangement can, in some way, do "better"
than the original scoring. There, Iíve said it. Now I await the
wrath of Stravinskyís "inevitable German professor"!
Pretty well all the notes you hear are recognisably from Mahlerís
hand, and I get the feeling that Okashiroís arrangement has somehow
- and incredibly - hung on to most of them! In so doing, she has
set herself a very considerable virtuosic challenge, which by
the sound of it has brought her right up against the stops of
her present capabilities. My guess is that the sheer block-busting
effort involved, allied to the nature of the piano, is what produces
this palpable sense of tempestuous chaos. Whatís more, thereís
no sense of Lisztian showmanship here, just red-raw, blood-curdling
In the aftermath, Okashiroís fingers capture
a real feeling of straining in the upward-striving lines, and
her view of the second subject is anything but serene: "wracked
with anguish" would be nearer the mark. Itís not so much
a contrast with as a continuation of the first subject, lending
a new edge of meaning to the rumbling return of the first movement
material that bridges to the subsequent climactic outburst. Her
delicacy of touch in the moment of fanfare-laden quiet is as exquisite
as her attack in the build-up to the "false dawn" is
ferocious. Likewise, the parade of past themes passes in a panoply
of filigree, and the coda storms the barn in no uncertain manner.
It is only in the tearaway closing bars that you get a feeling
that sheís running out of steam. Do you know something? I think
that this might well be entirely deliberate.
This is not pretty music, but it is pretty impressive,
not least in the sheer audacity of the undertaking, which sounds
like something that should not even be attempted by any pianist
who canít eat Lisztís arrangement of Beethovenís Ninth
for breakfast along with a minimum of three Shredded Wheats. Chitose
Okashiro is a formidable pianist: I have this nagging suspicion
that her hobbies must be something like miniature flower arrangement
and smashing piles of roof tiles with her bare hands.
Iíll admit that I had fully expected this CD
to enshrine a fiasco, thinking something on the lines of, "Mahlerís
First on a piano? Donít be so ridiculous!" To my utter
astonishment, I was completely bowled over by it. Now, I am fully
aware that my judgement may have been clouded. At my time of life
"astonishment" is an increasingly rare experience, so
Iím more than content to be astonished. Nevertheless I have tried
to make allowances for this happy state of affairs. There are
imperfections, hardly surprising, and just very occasionally I
was tempted to think that there are maybe one or two places where
the "drum-roll" left hand and sustaining pedal are laid
on a bit thickly. Yet, all these pale into insignificance when
set against the revelatory nature of the "transcription"
and the authority which Okashiro brings to her performance. Sure,
I can imagine it being done better, but only by stretching my
imagination a little - about as far as Okashiro has stretched
As Mr. Spock might have said, "This is Mahlerís
First, Jim, but not Mahlerís First as we know it."
The lady is right, it does indeed make you think again, and think
carefully about what the music is "about". Moreover,
the revelations are not limited to the substance of the arrangement,
but often emerge from the style of the interpretation. Iím thinking
particularly about her highly elastic phrasing, a required characteristic
of Mahlerís music that is so rarely given enough air to breathe
or worse inappropriately applied by many conductors. Chitose Okashiroís
arrangement - and her breathtaking performance - make you realise,
in contradistinction to his long-held reputation as a bit of a
"wild child", just how refined a composer was
Gustav Mahler. It seems to me that both my questions have been
answered in the affirmative.