Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 Resurrection (1895) (arranged for piano four hands by Bruno Walter, 1898)
Maasa Nakazawa (primo), Suhrud Athavale (secondo)
rec. Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn Hall, University for Music and the Performing Arts, Vienna, 22 March 2013
NAXOS 8.573350 [76.24]
From the very earliest days that the piano began to enter the home, composers took advantage of the seating area available in front of the keyboard of the instrument to write pieces featuring two - or occasionally more - players. They sat side-by-side and took parts on the upper and lower registers of the piano respectively. The field of these works rapidly expanded to include arrangements of orchestral works for ‘piano, four hands’. These became staples of publishers’ catalogues for many years. The reasons for the popularity of this medium were primarily commercial, to satisfy a demand from serious amateur musicians for versions of the score that they could experience and enjoy in the domestic arena. They also fulfilled a secondary function of making available scores that would otherwise have enjoyed limited exposure at public concerts. At the same time the scores of these published versions were usually laid out for the practicality of the players – the left-hand pages for the lower player, the right-hand pages for the upper – which made them almost useless for study purposes.

Only a year after the full score of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was published by Hofmeister in 1897, the publishers Weinberger commissioned and made available this reduction of the score for the benefit of such audiences. The adaptation was the work of Bruno Walter, already established as one of the most prominent of Mahler’s protégés and interpreters. There's added interest in the fact that the score was corrected and annotated by the composer himself.

These arrangements of symphonic works often demanded very high levels of accomplishment on the part of their intended performers, in a way that argues for the superb attainments of the amateur players concerned. This version of Mahler’s Resurrection certainly requires an almost concerto-like ability from both the pianists, as well as a massive sonority even to approximate the dynamic levels of the original orchestral and choral score. Even so, that approximation is the best that can be hoped for. Grand dramatic effects, such as the timpani strokes that open the third movement, sound frankly feeble, if not ridiculous, when reduced to the piano. Recordings of the work have familiarised us with the sound of the symphony, and the ear can often supply the actual sounds that are missing; but the very existence of these recordings has now rendered the need for a version of the work that can be performed in a domestic setting pretty well meaningless. One wonders why on earth anyone would wish to return to Bruno Walter’s sometimes pastel imitation when the red-blooded original may be played at the simple turn of a switch or pressing of a button.

Well, sometimes what is included and what is omitted from a piano reduction can provide some insight into what the composer regarded as essential and what could be treated as mere decoration, enlightening performers of the originals in the process. This is particularly true when, as here, the composer himself supervised the published version. In fact such clarifications here are simply not to be found. What we have is a straightforward reduction of the orchestral score to piano terms, with tremolos galore to evoke sustained crescendos in the finale. Sometimes the lack of distinction between accompaniment and principal melody, apparent enough when orchestral colour makes the contrasts clear, simply becomes blurred in the middle register of the piano. Other passages such as the ‘bird of death’ singing over the distant brass during the last movement just before the choral entry, simply miss the point of the music altogether.

The young pianists Maasa Nakazawa and Suhrud Athavale are well able to cope with the difficulties of their parts, although the sheer lack of force and volume is a definite sacrifice. At the end of the day, given the number of performances and recordings of the symphony available, I end up wondering why so much effort has been expended on a version which inevitably can only be second best. There are even four performances conducted by Bruno Walter now available, including live readings from 1942, 1948 and 1957 as well as his famous commercial recording from 1958. This version can therefore at best be regarded nowadays as a curiosity. It is well if rather closely recorded - which would match the domestic setting for which the reduction was intended - and there is an informative and substantial booklet note by Hartmut Krones in both English and German.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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